Reflections on a Lutheran Theology of Creation: Foundations for a New Reformation
By David Rhoads
Published in the Seminary Ridge Review, a periodical of Gettysburg Lutheran Theological Seminary (Fall, 2013). Seminary Ridge Review has an online archive. Print copies of the issue are available.
The article proposes a new Lutheran reformation that rises to the global ecological crises we are facing. This proposal is one expression of many possible ways to respond to the degraded state of God’s creation and what we as Christians need to do to address it. The ideas and views contained here are meant to be preliminary rather than final, generative rather than definitive, and an opening for dialogue rather than an effort to close it down. Whether you agree or disagree with these ideas, my hope is that, as a church, we will respond to the ecological crises with constructive dialogue, transformation, creativity, and action. The lecture I gave at the Gettysburg Conference on “Getting Green Faithfully” was one part of this larger piece. The Seminary Ridge editors graciously invited me to publish the entire essay.
A New Reformation: Introduction
I am proposing that we inaugurate a new reformation. We Lutherans have always considered “perpetual reformation” to be an ongoing dimension of our common life. Nevertheless, what I am proposing is more than mere adjustments in Reformation trajectories. We are facing unprecedented changes in our life on Earth and the times are calling for something much more substantial. If we are to be prepared to face these crises and to address them, some paradigm shift, some foundational transformation of our church, needs to take place.
The ecological crises, particularly the alarming progression of global climate change, are rapidly becoming matters reaching to the heart of faith. Twenty years ago, in the social statement “Caring for Creation,” the ELCA issued a warning for the church to respond to the looming ecological crises and the social justice issues related to them. Now it is time to meet the challenges presented by that document. This is a clarion call for a new re-formation.
The Ecozoic Age
The list of crises we are facing as a planet is long and substantive. To name a few: global climate change; unpredictable weather patterns; increase in frequency and intensity of storms; drought; rampant wildfires due to dry conditions; deforestation; desertification; shifting agricultural conditions; movement of species of plants and animals; loss of species diversity; deterioration in air quality; pollution of fresh water sources and oceans; degradation of soil; rise of seas levels, human overpopulation, and more—all of which produce negative impacts on human life, particularly the most vulnerable people and societies. Every eco-system on Earth is under stress. Earth itself is under stress.
Father Thomas Berry has said that humanity is entering a new era, the Ecozoic Age—an age in which ecological issues will dominate our global life together. He argues that creating a sustainable environmental lifestyle on the planet is the “great work” of our time. It is a work in which all people can participate, a work that all must embrace if human life on this planet is to be sustained. This work will require intention and sacrifice; and it can be joyful. The environment is not a fad. It is not an add-on, not one more issue alongside others. It is not just for those who happen to be interested in this cause. Earth is our home. It involves everyone. It impacts all living things. And we humans, we Christians, we Lutherans, need to step up and embrace dramatic changes in ourselves and in our life together for the sake of Earth—and for the sake of the God we confess to be the creator and preserver of our planet and the whole universe.
Transformation of Society
In this twenty-first century, an adequate human response to the ecological state of the world—by all nations, but especially among industrialized countries—will require a systemic transformation far greater even than the transformation that occurred in the United States and other Allied societies when they rose to the challenge of war in the 1940s. In the United States, for example, the entire economy was re-directed to address the challenge of war. Standard factories were quickly transformed. New industries arose overnight. Goods and resources such as gas and other products were rationed. People grew their own food. Cars were limited. Everyone made sacrifices. The assets of our society were marshaled to rise and meet the challenge.
That is what industrial nations need to do now at national and global levels to address the challenge of the environmental crisis: a transformation to renewable energy, transition to eating local foods, massive reforestation projects, replanting of native species everywhere, cultivation of resources to develop and share new technologies, limits to the use of pesticides and herbicides, prohibition of the clearing of forests and the stripping of land, rationing of energy and water, protection for wetlands and wilderness, among many other things. We need an economic system that settles in and sustains life, all living things, instead of an economy that depends on unlimited resources and unlimited growth. These are systemic changes that also require personal commitments. Whether or not these changes are being made by governments and corporations, we as individuals and communities need to begin to do them now on a voluntary and unilateral basis. We see one such change bubbling up already with the number of local initiatives around food: urban gardening, home gardens, community supported agriculture, restoration of native habitats, humane treatment of animals, eating lower on the food chain, organic farming, soil restoration projects, among others. We need to see a pervasive grassroots groundswell of changes on this issue and many others. We cannot wait for everyone else to go along.
The Christian churches
The church is called to participate in this “great work” and, indeed, to offer leadership. To do so, we need a transformation as great as that required by the society. There are many reasons why Christianity in general has failed to show significant change in attitude towards Earth. Indeed, Christian traditions and practices have contributed significantly to the problems and to the societal ethos that has produced the problems. Nevertheless, in the last two decades, world-wide ecumenical organizations of churches such as the World Council of Churches, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, and others have held many meetings covenanting with member churches to design new ways of developing a relationship with all of God’s creation, to understand afresh how God works in the world of the nature around us, and to build and nurture sustainable Earth-communities. In the United States, the National Partnership for the Environment was formed to foster care for creation among four representative groups: The National Council of Churches, the National Catholic Conference, the Evangelical Environmental Network, and the Coalition on Jewish Life and the Environment. Many denominations are stirring, including our own ELCA. Many para-religious groups dealing with the ecological crisis, such as Earth Ministry, Green Faith, and Faith in Place have arisen. Clearly, the environment is an emergent theme in contemporary religious life and mission.
But the ecological challenge will take much more, something radical and comprehensive. There is a lot of care-for-creation activity going on in many places in Lutheran congregations and institutions, along with reflective thinking in all major disciplines in Lutheran academic circles and advocacy in relation to environmental policies. Unfortunately, it is often isolated and scattershot. We need a comprehensive and systemic approach. For the most part, popular theology is not creation-friendly; neither are curricular materials; nor worship; nor the way we care for the building and grounds of our congregations and institutions; nor our models of discipleship, stewardship, or evangelism; nor the core, the ethos, or the identity, nor our denominational and institutional missions. A paradigm shift will involve more than tinkering, more than tweaking, more than a conference here or a hymn there. We need to get it into our marrow. We need to incorporate this into our DNA. Just as we have to think boldly about how to change the society, so we need to think boldly about how to transform the church—in terms of personal and systemic transformation. Creation care and sustainable living need to be as natural and inescapable as loving our neighbor. Our entire church—congregational life and mission, theology, ethics, worship, pastoral care, spiritual practices—need a radical overhaul if we are to care for the life of God’s creation and contribute to our endurance as a species. This calls for fundamental re-formation.
I am convinced that we Lutherans have the resources and the organization necessary to bring us into this new reformation dedicated to a sustainable world. We need to draw on these resources and traditions so that they fulfill their promise for our age. Lutheran theologian and ethicist Larry Rasmussen has noted Romans 8:19 —that the whole creation has been groaning in travail “waiting with eager longing”—and then he has added that creation is “Waiting for the Lutherans.” Let us hope that this is not like waiting for Godot!
Comparison of Reformations
What might a Lutheran eco-reformation look like? And how might it be similar to or different from the first reformation? A Methodist historian, Phillip Watson, identified the sixteenth century reformation as a “Copernican Revolution” in religion. Just as our physical view of the cosmos shifted from being Earth-centered to being sun-centered, so also the first Reformation shifted the conception of salvation from being human-centered to being God-centered, from human efforts to God’s actions of grace in Christ. This was a revolution in basic perception that changed everything in relation to the dominant views and practices of the time. Lutheran Reformation churches had a theological image of God as a God of grace. They were liberated from the bondage of needing to please God. They focused on a servant theology of the cross instead of a triumphalist theology of glory. They read the Bible differently with justification as the internal canon of interpretation. They placed Scripture in the hands of the laity. They worshipped in ways that focused on God’s direct action in worship. They embraced the sacraments as material reality bearing the spiritual reality of Christ. They affirmed the goodness of creation. They reinvented church order around a priesthood of all believers. They saw ethics as a response to grace and characterized in freedom as a vocation to love the neighbor, especially in relation to the poor and the hungry. They understood Christians acting as citizens of two kingdoms. And more.
Now, without losing the foundational fruits of that revolutionary Reformation and by building on them (indeed by shaping them for our current context), we need a new reformation, a new “Copernican Revolution,”—so to speak—from being human-centered to being creation-centered, from being anthropo-centric to being cosmo-centric, from God’s relation to humans alone to God’s relationship with all creation, from the extreme enlightenment individualism of our culture to a quest for the common good of the planet. For most of us, this is as mind-bending a change in perception as the first Reformation was. It will require metanoia (repentance) in the true sense, a mind change and a behavior change—both individually and collectively as a church. Again, this shift is revolutionary. It changes everything. It changes the way we think of ourselves (as mammals embedded in nature); it changes how we see our interrelationship with the world around us (every living creature and every non-living thing connected to everything else); and it changes our image of God as an ongoing creator (working for good in, with, and under everything).
To make this shift, we need theologies that are earth-friendly and creation-centered. We cannot be stuck in the issues of the sixteenth century if we are to address the issues of our time. In a conversation with Lutheran theologian Paul Santmire, he said this: “Just as Luther addressed the signal issue of his time, namely, human salvation, so we need to address the signal issue of our time, namely, the fate of Earth.” To do that, we need a reformation that responds to the Ecozoic Age. Luther responded to the salvation crisis by rediscovering Paul’s concept of justification by grace through faith; now it is our turn to build on this and rise to the current ecological crisis to foreground Lutheran theologies of creation. And just as Luther recovered portions from the Bible and other neglected traditions that the sixteenth century had overlooked, so we can recover from the Bible and from our Lutheran heritage those traditions that address us in our time.
For example, although (as we shall see) Luther had a profound appreciation for material creation, most of his attention was focused on seeing theology through the prism of the second article of the creeds to address his time (salvation of humans). Now, however, we need to see theology through the prism of the first article of the creed as the starting point of Trinitarian theology for our time—on God as creator and on the redemption of creation and on the consummation of creation. Furthermore, we need to read the Bible with a new lens that encompasses creation. In this regard, Santmire also commented that we need an additional canon for interpretation in our time, namely, Rom 8:18-25, with all creation “groaning in travail” and eagerly awaiting “freedom from its bondage to decay”—seen in deep interrelationship with justification by grace (indeed justification and creation are already integrated in the Letter to the Romans!). Without losing anything from justification and appropriating it anew for our time, we are called to reinterpret Scripture in light of this new canon within the canon—and to bring out all the rich resources of Scripture for the task before us.
And this new focus on the signal issue of our time will change everything for us. In order to anticipate the points that follow, let me name some changes we might embrace. We need to learn to worship every week in relationship with creation. We can preach the word of God for all creation. Our ethical reflections need to encompass ecological justice so as to expand our commitment to social justice for the most vulnerable. We can enlarge our circle of compassion by recovering our original vocation from Genesis to “serve and protect” creation. We can understand the theology of the cross to encompass solidarity with suffering creation. We can expand Luther’s two kingdoms to encompass the animal kingdom and the plant kingdom as arenas of God’s activity and our response. In addition to the Book of Scripture, we can also place the revelatory “book of nature,” as Luther called it, in the hands of the laity. We can train clergy to be sages whose wisdom will help to lead us through the changes we will be facing. We can employ our profound view of the sacramental elements of bread and wine as a paradigm for treating all life with reverence. We can see God in every rock and rodent. We can have a spirituality that is earth-centered in the belief that the finite bears the infinite to us. We can reinvent congregational identity and mission to encompass love of creation. We can create communities that are alternatives to consumption and exploitation. We can expand our commitment to the hungry and the marginalized to include endangered species and vulnerable ecosystems. We can have an encompassing mission of ecological justice that hears the cry of the poor and the cry of the Earth.
In this new reformation, we need to reform ourselves. At the same time, this is a reformation that will unite rather than divide. It is not a confessing movement within the church but a confessing movement in the world along with the whole church. It unifies around a common mission as the church for the world. As such, this reformation will listen to the diverse voices within our Lutheran tradition. And it will be ecumenical. It will also be interfaith, because all religions have salient traditions and resources that can be garnered for crafting new eco-ethics for Earth. Christians, Unitarian Universalists, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Taoists, indigenous religions, among others (including secular organizations) together will find common ground (Earth!) in the collective calling to earth-care. We are all in this, and it will take all of us to work together to address our situation. No place for a theology of glory here!
A suggestion: For a moment, bracket life after death
I have a suggestion about how best to imagine a theology of creation. In our current thinking, there is a tendency to take creation for granted and to talk primarily about redemption. In so doing, we detach salvation from creation—we individualize it and spiritualize it. “Jesus died for my sins so I can go to heaven.” By itself, this is not earth-friendly. This life becomes merely a pilgrimage toward our true home in heaven. Lutherans have not generally embraced the popular rapture theology that people will be saved by being snatched out of this world. Nevertheless, in our focus on afterlife, we have sometimes embraced a more subtle form of rapture, namely that we are raptured to heaven at death. Not that this view is wrong, but when taken by itself, it denigrates the creation left behind. Salvation becomes what happens after we die. We leave the world behind. Australian Lutheran biblical scholar and theologian Norman Habel critiques this theology “heavenism.”
However, in Scripture and in our Lutheran tradition, the movement of salvation has not been away from Earth but toward it. I sometimes tell my students that if you think of salvation only as dying and going to heaven, you may pass Jesus coming the other way! That is what in-carnation is about: God becoming human, God coming to dwell with humans, Jesus returning to be with us.
As we recover neglected traditions about creation, we might remember that most of the Old Testament was written without belief in a life after death and without the expectation of an end-time. People believed that salvation occurred in this life, with the community, and with the rest of nature—with individual redemption embedded in the redemption of the people of Israel and in all creation. In the New Testament, there is an affirmation of personal life after death, but always in the context of the community and always with a framework involving the rest of creation. Consider the cosmic dimensions of the vision of the end-time in Mark 13. Or consider Paul’s claim that all creation is waiting to be set free (Rom 8:21). Consider John’s claim that God so loved the world (Jn 3:16). Consider Colossian’s assertion that God was in Christ reconciling all things in heaven and on Earth Col 1:20). Or Revelation’s vision of the future New Jerusalem with God, Christ, humans, and fruitful nature abiding together in peace and justice (Rev 21). Creation is not a stage or a backdrop on which human redemption is carried out. We have screened creation out of much of our reading of the Bible, where the natural order is an integral part of that which God is seeking to redeem and bring to fulfillment.
Given our focus on personal salvation after death, I want to give you this challenge as a way to get us out of the theological boxes we put ourselves in. In order to understand the biblical ideas of creation, redemption, and fulfillment, consider thinking about them apart from individual life after death. Please know that I am not denying life after death, nor am I asking you to think that life after death with God is unimportant. I am simply asking you to bracket life after death for a momentary time in order to see the full potential of creation and redemption in this life. How might the major theological concepts of our faith be understood as related wholly to this created life? Perhaps by looking at things this way we will be more fully able to understand what is meant by redemption in the biblical materials (and, indeed, in the Reformation). At the end of the essay, I will return again to the concept of life after death and suggest how it might fit into a Lutheran theology of creation for this new reformation.
Why must we revolutionize our theology? Both consciously and unconsciously, human attitudes and actions toward nature are formed by religious worldviews and ethics. How we think shapes how we act. If our theology is not earth-friendly, what would lead us to think that our actions and commitments will lead us to care for creation? Perhaps the moral test for theology in our time is this: Does it lead to harm or neglect of Earth community, or does it foster love for creation, leading to decisions that sustain Earth—even to the seventh generation ahead, which many Native Americans use as a measure? We Christians need to become aware of how we think, so as to see the consequences of our thoughts and assumptions. We need to change our thinking about God and about ourselves as humans and about Earth as God’s creation so as to provide a solid foundation for earth-care action. Such change involves a paradigm shift of deep cultural and religious structures. It is re-socialization at a primary level.
What follows is an effort to address theological foundations for a new eco-reformation in relation to the three articles of our Trinitarian faith.
First article: God the ongoing creator of the universe
Christian churches have spent the better part of two centuries focusing on God’s relation with humans and our human relationships with one another. Now we need to focus on God’s relationship with all creation, our relationship with the rest of creation, and our relationship with God in and through creation. In our time, it appears that God is orienting us to creation.
Creation from beginning to end
Foundationally, Lutherans have a very strong theology of creation rooted in an affirmation of the first article of the creed: “I believe in God the . . . creator of heaven and earth.” Unfortunately, we have often seen the realities to which the three articles of the creed point as events that happen sequentially in time rather than as continuous realities. We Lutherans embrace creation as continuous, not as a single event in the past. As such, the whole sweep of salvation is the continuous creative activity of God. Therefore, we need to see theology through the prism of creation—creation as the beginning, middle, and end of God’s activity. The first article of the Creed is the foundation of theology. The second article continues creation as redemption and simultaneously builds on it. Redemption is new creation. The third article continues creation as sanctification and brings it toward fulfillment. The Holy Spirit sustains creation. And eschatology is about consummating creation. All of it represents the ongoing creative activity of God from beginning to end. Ongoing creation is foundational, and our redemption in Christ and the sanctification of the Spirit liberate and empower us humans to be agents in service of creation.
A “Copernican revolution” in our human relationship with nature
The “Copernican revolution” in our relationship with God involves a paradigm shift from being anthropo-centric to being geo-centric or cosmo-centric. This shift implies a radical change in our human relationship with the rest of nature. We need an awakening, a great awakening to the life of nature around us. On a personal and corporate level, many of us are woefully unaware of our interrelationship with the rest of nature, the ecosystems upon which we depend for life and well-being. Therefore, we are systematically degrading air, land, water, and the atmosphere itself—unaware of where the products we use come from or where they go when we discard them. We have to “wake up” to what is all around us and how we are interrelated to it and what we are doing to destroy it. The nature that sustains us is around us, and we do not “see” it. This involves an actual perceptual shift in what we see every day and how we see it.
To awaken to the world around us, we have to re-imagine the world and our relationship in it. We have to see it differently. We have to be in it differently. This is critical, because the ecological crisis is a spiritual problem. Yes, we need all the technological solutions we can muster. However, the ecological problems have resulted from our human alienation and estrangement from creation, and they will not be adequately addressed without a restoration of this relationship. This social and cultural separation from nature after the industrial revolution is a primal wound, an experience of loss and sadness of which we humans are hardly aware. Our life is profoundly diminished by our failure to relate to and interact with nature on a continuous basis. And our relationship with God is greatly diminished in so far as we are estranged from God’s creation. We think we live on Earth, not in it and because of it, as if we were not ourselves animals.
Some years ago, I had an epiphany about this. I was in my apartment in Chicago. It was in the middle of the night. I never sit up when I awaken. And I never talk when I first wake up. I have no idea where this came from as I suddenly woke from sleep. But at 3:20 in the morning I sat bolt up in bed and blurted out: “I’m a mammal!” Well, I knew that. At least I thought I did. But the experience led me to see my true self in a new way. As I pondered this epiphany over and over in the succeeding months, I became acutely aware of how we could strip away all that separates us from nature—houses, buildings, pavement, stores, language, customs and habits, entertainment and social media that so occupy us—take that all away and we are clearly animals, as dependent on Earth as all other animals. And I realized how separated we are from the earth that gave us birth. I woke up to the reality around me. This epiphany happened in February, and it occurred to me that I had gone for at least three months never putting my foot on natural ground—going from house to sidewalk to driveway to car to store to work to wherever and back again, never putting my foot on sod. It was a parable for me of our human estrangement from nature. We have created this artificial world on top of Earth. And we take our relationship to Earth for granted.
The point is that the ecological problems we face are deeper than a fix-it approach. It has fundamentally to do with our relationship with the rest of nature. We need to go “back to Earth” and have a love affair with nature. Larry Rasmussen has commented that “We will not save what we do not love.” In a lecture on the importance of native plants, naturalist Douglas Tallamy said, “If we do not have an emotional connection with Earth, we will not care for it.” This is one of the distinct contributions of religion to environmental concerns. Unless we have cultivated love of and care for creation, unless we see God and God’s grace in creation, we will not as humanity do what needs to be done to develop a just and sustainable life for future generations. The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. We have been indifferent to and destructive of the world around us. And now we are called to wake up and reunite our bodies, souls, and spirits with all of God’s creation.
Who we are as humans
This great work of reformation involves changing the perception of who we are as humans and how we are connected to world around us. We are mammals, higher primates. We eat, drink, urinate, and defecate. We sleep and rise, we copulate and reproduce. We are young, we grow old, and we die. We return to the earth, dust. We have come from earth and we are part of earth. Here before me in the fourth row sits our friend here at Gettysburg, John Spangler. It has taken fourteen billion years of the emergence of the entire universe and three billion years of life on the planet to evolve to this precise moment in this place to create you! For each of us, your life in this moment as you are present here has required all of that!
The creation stories in the Bible confirm that we belong to Earth. Adam was made from the dust of the Earth. The name Adam (adam) is the masculine form of the Hebrew word adamah, which literally means “soil” or “arable [farmable] earth.” So Adam is an “earth man” who belongs to the land and who is responsible to the land. Dust we are and to dust we shall return. If instead of transliterating the Adam, we had for the last four centuries translated the name of the first human literally as “Earthman” or “Soilman” or even “Farmer,” our common understanding of human beings and their relationship to Earth might be quite different than it is.
Here is the new “Copernican revolution”: We need to de-center ourselves and see ourselves as one species among many and find a place in this planetary eco-system for all of us to thrive together. We are so anthropocentric. Life has been emerging on Earth for three billion years. And we show up at the last minute and think it’s all about us! It’s like the Carly Simon lyrics: “I bet you think this song is about you, about you.” We think it was all made just for us. Consider that God has been gracing and loving life on Earth for three billion years—the amoebas and the trilobites and the arthropods and, yes, the dinosaurs and the mammoths. Then we emerge. Do we think it is too much for God to expect us to take care of this planet God has loved and nurtured through the ages?
We evolved with all the other living and non-living things. There are no plants without soil. There are no animals without plants. At every point, we have been interdependent with the rest of nature. We share 99% DNA with some other primates. We are kin to every living thing. Not only are we animals in our own right but other animals are “human-like,” as a recent analysis of dolphin behavior led the author to refer to them as “non-human persons.” We have a kinship with to every living thing (or as some Native Americans refer to living and non-living things as “their relations”), and we need to cultivate these relationships. We are all part of a global, diverse gene pool. We evolved as part of a vast web of creation. At every step, we have been totally interrelated. Just in this brief time in this room together for this lecture, we have exchanged millions of cells with each other—touching those around us and breathing the same air. While here we have interacted with the trees and the grass around us. We have depended on the beetles and insects and birds. We are part of a long process of life organizing itself into ever more complex patterns and organisms. Creation is a seamless and changing web of which we are a part.
This is what it has come to—the song of the bird, the slither of the snake, the eye of the eagle, and you! And you are related to everything else. You cannot even define yourself apart from the food you eat, the soil and sunshine that nurtured the food. Jorge Luis Borges wrote: “How can we talk about the tiger without meaning also the deer that the tiger ate, the grass that the deer ate, the soil and sun that nurtured the grass, the solar system that made the sun and earth possible, and so on.” One thing implies and includes everything. Each single moment and event is not possible without the whole sweep of the evolution of Earth and the emergence of flora and fauna in the biota of life—from micro-organisms to llamas and leopards. Everything truly is connected to everything else. Can we see this with our eyes and our minds?
Imagine the teeming life of a wetland: water, hot air, sunshine, fish swarming, dragonflies buzzing, frogs croaking, birds flitting, with reeds—mayflies, water beetles, mosquitoes, spiders, water striders, bulrushes, cattails, duckweed, milkweed, nettles, wild flowers, and more. You can hear the hum of aliveness. The wetland is a living thing with all the participants interacting as one living organism. We humans also are part of a living eco-system, except that it is spread out and we are unaware of it, unaware of how dirt, sunshine, beetles, worms, trees, all contribute. We are unaware of it at the macro-level and the micro-level—that for example, as Annie Dillard wrote: “In the top inch of forest soil, biologists found an average of 1,365 living creatures: including 865 mites, 265 springtails, 22 millipedes, 29 adult beetles, and various numbers of other creatures. Had an estimate been given of the microscopic population, it might have ranged up to two billion bacteria and many millions fungi, protozoa, and algae—in a mere teaspoon of soil!”
Nor are we conscious of how much life has made us what we are. Here is a poem by Judith Morley that expresses that in a significant way:
By what miracle
does this cracker
made from Kansas wheat,
this cheese ripened from French caves,
this fig, dried and grown near Ephesus,
turn into me?
my cells, organs, juices, thoughts?
Am I not then Kansas wheat
and French cheese
and Smyrna figs?
Figs, no doubt, the ancient prophets ate?
This gives new meaning to the expression “We are what we eat.” We are made up of what is around us. You know this. So why do I say it? Because we have a hard time getting it into our heads and hearts. I have had the hardest time convincing my grandchildren that we are animals—we so distinguish ourselves from other animals (although my four year old granddaughter Cazhmere had it right one day when she was trying to embrace our cat, and she said “I want my cousin!”). Take off your clothes and walk around your house naked. Look in the mirror. Run barefoot in the grass and among the trees. We need to do whatever it takes to get us in touch with our natural bodies and our rootedness in Earth.
Deepening our rootedness in Earth
This great awakening to the world around us will involve what Roman Catholic theologian and teacher of spirituality Mary Frohlich has referred to as a “conversion to Earth.” Mary compares our need to change as similar to Alcoholics Anonymous twelve step program: we need to overcome our addiction to our destructive personal habits and social systems. We need to acknowledge our helplessness, turn to our higher power, do a fearless moral inventory, make amends to all we have harmed, and spread the conversion to others. We need a love affair with nature, and only a great awakening will do it.
She also compares a conversion to Earth with the same steps we need to make to be in solidarity with the poor, what she calls a “third order level of change.” We begin with personal changes, the first order. These are critical. But then we realize that this will not be enough. So we turn to changing the systems and cultural patterns that contribute to the degradation of Earth, which is the second order. Then we enter a dark night of the soul, in despair that nothing we do may make any difference. And then we work through the despair to a third order of change, to such solidarity in love with creation that we will care for creation whether our efforts will ultimately work or not. In this sphere, we are in such solidarity with Earth that we will not do anything to harm creation or let any harm come to it. “Caring” for creation may not be enough. As ELCA pastor, Peggy Ogden, once remarked to me, “I get it. We care for our cars, but we love our children.” Can we love Earth like our children? Can we love Earth so much that no matter what happens we will protect it. We need to expand the circle of our compassion to embrace love for all Earth community. This is so fundamental as to express it the way Martin Marty once said: Love God, love neighbor, love creation.
So how can we rectify our neglect of creation and the actions we have taken as a species to destroy and degrade the rest of nature? We can begin by looking around—look on trees, grass, plants, and animals around us. Behold things. Discover a sense of place. Re-root ourselves in Earth and return to our sense of kinship with animals and plants. Treat your yard and your seminary/ church yard as an Earth-community. Spend some time everyday taking in the world around you. Come back to Earth. The new reformation calls us to rethink and reorient our relationship with the rest of creation with great intention. We need an APP on our cell phones and ipods to remind us to thank the nearest tree, to breathe the air slowly and feel its grace, to behold the things around us, and know where we are and where we belong. The New Reformation calls us to rethink and reorient our relationship with the rest of creation.
God is in creation
But an even more profound step is required of our relationship with creation. Critical to this foundational shift in our relationship with Earth is the experience of God in and through creation. Luther wrote:
God is substantially present everywhere, in and through all creatures, in all their parts and places, so that the world is full of God and He fills all, but without His being encompassed and surrounded by it. He is at the same time outside and above all creatures. These are all exceedingly incomprehensible matters; yet they are articles of our faith and are attested clearly and mightily in Holy Scripture…. For how can reason tolerate it that the Divine Majesty is so small that it can be substantially present in a grain, on a grain, through a grain, within and without, and that, although it is a single Majesty, it nevertheless is entirely in each grain separately, no matter how immeasurably numerous these grains may be? …And that the same Majesty is so large that neither this world nor a thousand worlds can encompass it and say: “Behold, there it is!” . . . . His own divine essence can be in all creatures collectively and in each one individually more profoundly, more intimately, more present than the creature is in itself, yet it can be encompassed nowhere and by no one. It encompasses all things and dwells in all, but not one thing encompasses it and dwells in it (Luther WA: XXIII,134.34-23:136.36).
Wow! To say that God has been and always will be fully present in all things is a life-changing realization. God is embodied in creation. How can we see God in all things? How can we change our perception so that we see Christ not only in the faces of one another but also in the faces of animals and the leaves of plants? How can we see the world around us as valuable for its own sake—apart from our human use of it?
If God is present in all of nature and seeking to manifest God’s self to us there, then our life is diminished when we fail to relate to nature. As such, it is critical from a theological point of view to restore the human relationship with nature as a place God loves and as a place where we encounter God.
Luther himself did not view creation as a single event that set the world in motion, after which God detached while creation continued on its own, separate from God. God continues to be present creating. Creation has never stopped. Luther believed that God was continually sustaining creation and that each moment is dependent on the continuing act of creation by God. As a person of his time, Luther likely imagined an ongoing, stable, and unchanging creation. God continues to create by upholding the world and by bringing forth life through birth and seeding. Luther argued that if God withheld his creative presence, the world would collapse.
We now need to translate that view of “continuous creation” in the context of what we know about evolution and the emergence and complexity of life. We need to imagine creation as continually changing, evolving, and sometimes devolving. The whole manner of creating in an evolving universe is a matter of God’s intimate presence forever creating, shaping, and influencing—sustaining the world and working for good in all things. We need to reflect on evolution. Science is one critical way in which we become knowledgeable about God’s creation. We may not be permitted to talk about God the creator in public schools (and rightfully so), but that should not prevent us from talking about evolution in churches!
It is difficult for us to grasp the scope of evolution in time and space. The concept of continuous creation as an ongoing process with the immanence of God leads us to realize that creation is not complete. We have this misconception that Earth was created pretty much as we know it—with the continents, the oceans, the temperatures, the seasons, and so on. As a human species, we have basically lived within a brief window of time in which the features of Earth have remained remarkably stable—no continents shifting, no ice age, no massive disruption by volcanoes or meteors or asteroids hitting Earth. This stability has fostered in us an illusion that it has always been this way and it will always be this way in the future, at least for a very long time to come. However, over billions of years and into the future, Earth continues to change. Therefore, the temperature can change and the continents can shift again and the seasons can be altered by climatic conditions. And we are now entering a period of unprecedented rapid and dramatic changes, caused, in large part, by human activity.
Nevertheless, our affirmation is that God is in all of life creating and working for good in all things. This does not mean that God causes all things that happen or that God has a purpose for everything that happens or that God pulls strings to manipulate events. Rather, God has created the world in freedom and with a critical dimension of separateness. God has limited God’s power so that God’s relation to the world bears some measure of dynamic mutuality, so that creation itself participates in the creative process.
So what is the nature of God’s presence in the world? We know from the biblical materials that God grieves the loss and destruction of life, God suffers when creation suffers, God loves, God resists injustice, God seeks redemption, God heals. In John, Jesus says he is doing the works of the father. And as Paul said, “God is working for good in all things” (Rom 8:28). If we wish to see the nature of God in all things, we need to look at the face of Jesus—a life of healing and giving, a life of solidarity with the poor, a life of suffering for the vulnerable. God is the love that graces all things and holds all things together.
Changing our image or location of God
This whole approach leads to a dramatic shift in our image of God in which we shift the focus of our image of God from being out there to being in here, from space to Earth. We now need to take seriously that God is not only transcendent but also profoundly immanent, that God is not only “up” but also “down” and “around.” We tend to think of God as “up in heaven,” and we lift our head and hands to God in prayer and praise. Incidentally, that posture always puzzled me in light of the spherical shape of the Earth, because up is also down. Nevertheless, the idea of looking “down” and “in” things helps to overcome an unfortunate spirit-matter dualism. When we pray “up” and think of God as “up,” we tend to associate God with the empty sky, with what is airy or wispy rather than what is earthy, as if God’s spirit is transcendent and not also incarnate. We tend to associate God with what is ethereal rather than with what is material. If the whole Earth is filled with God’s glory, then that is where we shall find God. What if we now thought of God as down, as in, with, and under things? What if we saw God in the depths? This is in some sense a reversal of the way we ordinarily locate God.
I give two examples. First, I had a period of time in my devotional life when I prayed in the position of Islam, kneeling in a prostrate position with my forehead to the ground and hands down in submission to God above. This gave me a wonderful experience of my own humility in the presence of God above me. Nevertheless, as I prayed I realized that I was facing down and indeed praying down. I realized that the God is not only the Most High but also the Most Deep God. God is deep in the marrow of things, deep in the ebony blackness of earth, in the depths of the mystery of life. In the words of Paul Tillich’s well-known assertion, “God is the ground of our being.” This is a down-to-earth theology of creation in which we meet and encounter God in deep down things. We believe we meet Christ in others. Why not also in rocks and elm trees and earwigs and roses?
The second example is this: When my wife had cancer, she was overwhelmed by the network of people praying for her from so many different places. And she felt incredibly strengthened by their prayers. She thought of an analogy for her experience. A year before her illness we had visited the Rocky Mountains and taken a tour with a guide. On one hillside, our guide pointed out to us a stand of aspen trees. He noted that aspens do not reproduce through seeds. Rather they grow new trees up from the root system. As such, an aspen stand is really one living thing connected through its root system (the largest living thing in the world). Then he explained that when there is no rain, and the trees on the upper hillside are dry, the trees near a stream of water on the lower part of the mountain send water up through the roots to preserve and nourish the dry trees. Sandy said: “In my drought, I feel like the community through their prayers is sending nourishment to me deep through the root system.” There is a wonderful image for prayer that turns us to God’s presence in all of life: pray downward. God is the root system deep within that will convey our prayers to the needs of others.
So, as Santmire argues, we do not need an ascent theology whereby we look upward to God and aspire to rise above Earth in some spiritual quest to be above the material. Rather, we need a descent theology whereby we see ourselves settling in the good land, where God can be found to dwell.
Because of God’s presence here, everything in life is sacred. That is the Lutheran affirmation. Often we do not see the glory of God in creation. But Luther said that after we have been freed from sinful preoccupation with justifying ourselves, from being curved in on ourselves, we are able to see creation in a whole new way. After we have been liberated by grace from self-centeredness, freed from the need to view all things as commodities for our use, then we are able to see the brightness of God’s presence everywhere. We are able to see creation as it really is, filled with the glory of God. I used to sing the song: “Turn your eyes upon Jesus. Look full in his wonderful face. And the things of the earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace.” Now I sing the last line this way: “And the things of the Earth will grow strangely bright, in the light of his glory and grace.” And this vision will change us. After describing a hummingbird hovering before him on a porch where he was sitting, Wendell Berry added: “My mind became beautiful by the sight of it.”
Environmentalists talk about the re-enchantment of nature. Well enough. But I am talking about the re-sacralizing of nature. As we open our eyes and ears to the sacredness of life, we will love Earth for its own sake and also because it blesses us in communion with God through this deep personal connection with life. Then life is experienced as communion—communion with one another, with nature around us, and communion with God.
The affirmation of the sacredness of life reflects Lutheran sacramental theology. The bread and wine of the Eucharist were not just a way to remember Jesus. Nor did the bread and wine need to be transubstantiated or transformed to become the body and blood of Christ. For Luther, Christ is already in, with, and under the material elements in the sacraments of communion and baptism. Lutheran sacramental theology does not imply that God and Christ are present only in the sacraments or that only the elements in the sacraments are sacramental. The point is this: If we can be assured by Christ’s word that Christ is in, with, and under such ordinary elements as grapes and grain and water, then God is indeed in every ordinary thing in life. That makes everything (not Sacraments, but) sacramental. The sacraments confirm the ubiquity of God’s presence, that God is present everywhere. We need to fulfill the promise of this Lutheran sacramental view in practical terms in our relationship with all of nature. We readily embrace the spiritual dimensions of the sacraments. What if we also focused on our relationship with water and grain and grapes in their own right as well as in their capacity to bear Christ to us?
This theological foundation of the sacraments affirms the goodness and value of the created order. It means we can encounter God anywhere and everywhere in life. God created all things and declared them good. Luther believed that matter mattered, that the material world was good, and that God was present in all of nature. He believed that the finite could bear the infinite, that all parts of creation could bear the reality of God. There is no “God forsaken” place—not even Sheol. There is nothing of life that we should de-value. The creation stories in the Bible, the Psalms, the laws of Israel, and many passages from the prophets and the wisdom literature affirm that God values creation for its own sake. Psalm 104, for example, affirms that God created the trees and the grass and the mountain crags and the rain not for humans but for the birds to nest and the cattle to graze and the goats to have a home and the plants to grow.
The intimate presence of God in creation does not mean that God is to be equated with nature and the world. This is not pantheism. The creation is not “divine” by virtue of God’s presence. Creation or nature is not to be worshipped. On the contrary, creation is to worship God. Some Lutheran theologians speak theologically of God’s relation to the world in terms of panentheism (all things “in” God). Others prefer pansyntheism (all things “with” God). But whatever terms we use, our purpose must be this: to find a way to envision God as both immanent in nature and transcendent to nature. This is the paradoxical view that encompasses both realities that defines a Lutheran perspective.
Reverence as basis for use
There is more to our change of perception. The insight that all of life is sacramental is critical for our ethical commitments. If all of life is sacramental, then a posture of reverence will be central to our Christian life. All of life should be treated with reverence. Reverence is not a trait we have cultivated in the West. We look at the rest of nature and we see resources to be tapped, materials to be used, places to be exploited, sites to be developed, and opportunities for human enrichment. The rest of life is treated as if it were made up of lifeless things without mystery and devoid of God’s glory—all there for us to use and abuse freely. What if we began with reverence for all things and then made use only of what we needed? What if we treated animals, plants, and land with respect? Reverence is the right basis for use. If we have the eyes to see God’s glory everywhere, then our appreciation for the sanctity of life will lead us to live in ways that are sustainable for all creation.
Joseph Sittler has said that delight is the right basis for use. If we delight in something, we will not abuse it or misuse it or neglect it. We might also say, then, that reverence is the right basis for use. Consider the long-standing Native American deep regard for nature where there were (and are) rituals designed to give reverence to the buffalo before there was a buffalo hunt or to a tree before cutting it down for a Sun Dance. We could well adapt that approach to our prayers before meals or for any use that we make of the resources of Earth.
I give a personal example. I was participating in the wedding of my nephew Adam. The wedding was in a Roman catholic church in Connecticut. Because I was in the service, I sat to the side of the altar. I had a close up view of the priest as he prepared the elements and completed the communion. I was struck by the way in which he handled the elements with such care and reverence. At the end, he slowly drank the remainder of the wine from the chalice, cleaned and dried it with the linen cloth, then took the communion wafers and placed them carefully into the container to be placed back in their place in the sanctuary. Nothing was lost, nothing was wasted, all was treated with the utmost respect. Suddenly, I thought to myself, “Why do we not treat all food this way? Why do we not show the same reverence for food at all meals?” And so I began a spiritual practice at meals in which I am careful not to put any more on my plate than I will eat and to eat everything on my plate. Nothing wasted. Nothing lost. And I eat slowly so as to savor and enjoy the food I am eating–all to be treated with gratitude and reverence.
I even changed the blessings I spoke over the food. I used to say things like “Let this gift to us be blessed.” Or “Bless this food to our use.” Now I pray for the food itself that potatoes and peas and apples and rice may thrive on this Earth and I express gratitude that I am so fortunate to be able to enjoy them—always remembering those who are not so fortunate. I shifted from my use of this food to a commitment to the food itself, the plants themselves, the animals themselves, and the equitable sharing of all of it. If everything is sacramental, then reverence and care are deeply appropriate.
Worshipping with creation
Now for another level of relationship with creation. One of the most striking things about the biblical understanding of nature is that all creation is enjoined to worship God. Scripture is downright exuberant about the praise of creation. “May the heavens be glad and the Earth rejoice. Let the fields exalt and everything in them, let the trees of the forest sing for joy, let the oceans roar and all that is in them.” (I Chr 16:29-34). “Let the fields exalt!” This means, as John Paarlberg says, that “the very soils beneath our feet are, in their own way, choirs of creatures singing their insect hymns, michrobial chants, and fungal anthems in praise to the God who made them.” This does not mean that each animal and plant and land and sea have special sounds to do that, although that may be part of it. No, it means that these created things praise God by doing and being what they were created to be and by thriving/ relishing in it.
Joseph Sittler has said that when we diminish and degrade the life of forests and fields and seas, we diminish their capacity to praise God. We may not only diminish the capacity of Earth to praise God, but also, by degrading creation, we may be diminishing God’s capacity to delight in creation: “May the Lord rejoice in all his works” (Ps 104:31). If we have a God who suffers with us, as indeed the crucifixion shows that we do, then we may be increasing God’s suffering empathy with Earth by our recklessness and destructive ways. When we delight in creation and care for it, we magnify God’s joy at the flourishing of life.
Hence, our solidarity with the rest of creation does not stop with a sense of kinship with creation or even with our reverence for life. We humans are called not just to thank God for creation but to praise God with creation. Again, this has nothing to do with worshiping creation and everything to do with worshiping as part of creation. Scripture always includes humans among the members of nature who are to praise God. “Let them [all creation] praise the Lord.” (Ps 148:13). “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord” (Ps 150:6). Praying and praising with creation changes our fundamental relationship with creation.
In the sixteenth century Reformation, the key to the transformation in worship was to provide unmediated access to God—no venerated saints, no statues, and no indulgences. Guess what? Today, we are blocking or neglecting access to God in nature by our buildings, by our worship patterns, and by cultural customs that are not earth-friendly. There is little access to God through nature in worship—even an awareness of our own natural bodies worshipping. For twenty centuries, we have spent so much of our liturgy and worship practices focusing on the God-human and human-human relationships that we have neglected the God-creation relationship and the human-creation relationship. The first Reformation put the book of Scripture into the hands of the laity. But Luther also talked about another “book” that revealed God to us, the reality of nature. Our worship provides an opportunity for us to relate to the presence and revelation of God in and through nature. Our most recent Lutheran hymnal does much to incorporate our relationship with nature into worship. We should make use of this resource to its fullest. At the same, we need to worship in ways that make our worship with creation unmistakable. How can we incorporate creation so fully into our services that it permeates every experience of worship?
I had this vision in a dream during sleep one night over a decade ago.
I was in the front row of a cathedral looking at the scene before me during a service of communion. I saw the priest passing bread to the first person kneeling at the communion rail. As I looked, the next figure at the railing was a snake! It was curled at the bottom with its back arching up over the rail and with its head straining forward to receive the grace of Christ. The next figure was another person. Next was a raccoon with paws up on the communion rail leaning forward to receive the grace of Christ. Then I saw a bird perched on the corner of the communion rail eating bread crumbs.
As I finished surveying this scene in my dream, suddenly the side walls of the cathedral fell away and outside was thick foliage of forest and jungle on both sides with all manner of wild animals roaming around. In this moment, it seemed as if the walls of separation had been removed and there was a seamless web of all creation praising God and exalting in the grace of Christ.
From the time I awoke from that dream until this day, I have never experienced worship in the same way again. I now see Earth as the real sanctuary in which we worship, and I see myself invoking and confessing and giving thanks and praising God and making petitions and offering myself in solidarity with all of life. The author of Hebrews says: “Remember [in prayer] those in prison as though you were in prison yourself” (Heb 13:3). Now we can pray for all living things in nature as though we were part of nature ourselves—which indeed we are!
I have a suggestion for how we might frame all worship with creation. Perform four simple liturgical actions in every worship service. First, at the opening, invoke God the creator of all things (name some) and invite the congregation to join the “choir of all creation” in praise of God (naming some, perhaps animals and plants on your church property). Second, in the confession of sins, include at least one statement of our misuse and violation of creation. Third, include at least one petition on behalf of creation in the prayers (be specific and timely). Fourth, include our care-for-creation responsibility in the commission: “Go in peace. Serve the Lord. Remember the poor. Tend the Earth.” All these can be done naturally, with variation and without fanfare. I am convinced this framework will also lead us to notice the rich tradition of references to creation already in our liturgies, hymns, and lectionary lessons. And it may encourage those preaching to incorporate care for creation in the proclamation with and on behalf of creation.
Human role in creation
In a new reformation, how do we rethink vocation and discipleship in relationship with creation? If we are to assume our role as agents of God acting according to the image of God, we will seek to avoid destroying creation, seek to restore life where it is threatened, and work to make life flourish in all its forms. This is a Lutheran theology of creation that fosters love for neighbor and care for all creation.
So what then is our role as humans in creation? From a biblical point of view, we are to exercise responsibility as servants to creation. In the first creation story, God created all and saw that it was good, and then God created humans to take care of Earth. Humans are given dominion, not authorization for domination (Gen 1:26). We have misinterpreted this word “dominion” to mean that humans have a right to dominate and therefore use, abuse, and exploit the rest of creation for our own use. The command to “subdue” the earth (Gen 1:28) relates to a time when human life was especially fragile in the face of threats from snakes and wild animals. As such, God was giving directions for humans to “subdue,” that is, to be able to restrain that which would bring them harm. The misunderstanding of these terms has had a tragic impact on our common life in the West. It has given us authorization to do just about anything we want to nature, without limits, for human benefit and for human pleasure.
For a contrasting understanding, consider that a ruler who had dominion over Israel would be expected to be a shepherd caring for and protecting those in the realm, not tyrannizing or exploiting but protecting and seeking justice for the vulnerable—the widows and the orphans, the poor and the strangers. As such, “to have dominion over all the creatures” means that humans are agents to care for God’s creation. Biblical examples include resting the animals on the Sabbath (Exod 20:8-10) and mandating that the land should lie fallow every seventh year (Lev 25:1-7). The Noah story also gives a paradigmatic example of the kind of care we are to exercise—making sure species survive and thrive (Gen 7:1-16).
The second creation story tells us how we are to exercise that responsibility—not from a position above, but from below and in solidarity with the earth, just as we seek to serve in solidarity with the poor. “The Lord God took the human and put him in the Garden of Eden to till [serve] it and to keep [protect] it.” (Gen 2:15). We now know that “To till and to keep” actually means “to serve and to protect.” The word for “till” means “serve” and was used of people who served kings and priests. This mandate completely reverses and upends the misunderstanding of “dominion” as “domination.” Instead of being in a hierarchical position “over” Earth, we are placed in a position of subservience so as to use our power to care for the well-being of all that God has created.
To speak of the paradoxical role of servant kings is foundational to the Judeo-Christian tradition. This mandate to serve Earth is reinforced by the teaching of Jesus who says that our whole ethical posture in life is to be one of service: “Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant. Whoever wants to be most important must be everyone’s slave. For even the son of man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life . . .” (Mk 10:43-45). Although this teaching focuses on relations between humans, it echoes the command “to serve and to protect,” thereby equally representing the approach that humans are to take in relation to all of life. Whoever wants to be great among you is to be least of all and servant of all. That word “all” now includes all of Earth-community.
And not only are we to serve, but we are to “keep” or preserve or protect. In a sense, we are all farmers who care for the land so that we preserve it in a sustainable way for future generations. As we are called by Scripture to be our brother’s keeper and our sister’s keeper, so we are called by Scripture “to keep” earth, to be earth keepers, earth protectors. We are called to help the land fulfill its God given role to bring forth plants and animals. In the biblical stories, that is why God created humans in God’s image, to care for creation as agents of God so that the land, all plants, and all animals can flourish! In addition, Luther’s theology of faith active in love can be extended to such service of creation.
Humans as co-creators
We are therefore co-creators with God. The problem is we have been un-doing creation. Given our power and impact as a human species, we now have a special responsibility to undo our undoing. In the last centuries in the West, we have been making a mess of the planet. We could now stand to spend a few hundred years cleaning up after ourselves. We have made a difference in destroying Earth. Now we need to make a difference in restoring Earth.
Some say a role of co-creator is too elevated for humans. It reinforces the arrogance we already demonstrate. It may help simply to refer to the human role as agents of God. I prefer to use the term co-creators. There are four caveats that preserve humility in the notion of being co-creators. First, I suppose if we can be destroyers, we can be creators. Given our influence in creation, we surely are affecting the evolution of the planet. Given that we are already co-creating in evolution, we might as well accept this and become responsible about it so as to exercise responsibility for positive change. Unfortunately, the main way we have taken evolution seriously is in the dynamic of species competition and the “survival of the fittest.” It is ironic that even those who deny material Darwinism today often embrace social and economic Darwinism—with every human and non-human species left to fend for themselves with a few winners and many losers. Now we have to pick up on other dynamics of evolution if we are to survive, such as cooperation as the basis for survival rather than competition, and such as securing the most vulnerable and the most threatened species as a basis to preserve critical diversity.
Second, we can think of ourselves as co-creators as long as we recognize that we are partners in this co-creation with the land itself. In the creation stories, God commanded the land to “bring forth” vegetation, to bring forth creatures (Gen 1:24). Land itself is a co-creator as agent of God. If we are co-creators, so are the plants and animals. Ecologists agree. If not for soil, no plants. If not for plants, no animals. If not for flowers, no insects. If not for insects, no mammals. If not for small animals, no large animals. If not for trees, no oxygen. If not for trees, no ozone layer to protect life from the sun. And on and on. The Earth brings forth life. In addition, ecologists are recently marveling at the self-organizing capacities of life—the capacity of life to expand and connect in ways that increase the diversity and complexity of life. Life itself has incredibly creative and restorative powers to grow and to adapt to changing conditions. We are called to learn these ways and to work as co-creators with creation rather than against it. The Lutheran affirmation that God works through “means of grace” can also support the notion of humans as co-creators.
Third in humility, we need to see how critical the rest of life is for the endurance of our human life. The first rule of ecology is: Everything is connected to everything else. There is a complex and dynamic evolution of these things together and we cannot remove one species in an ecosystem and expect the rest to stay. We humans are playing the building block game where you pile high the blocks and then try to remove one at a time without the whole thing coming down. And humans are not the linchpin here, not the keystone. Beetles are much more critical. No beetles, no life. Trees have done more to create the world than humans. So we are all shaping and influencing. We are authorized by God as co-creators to allow all of creation to fulfill its role as co-creating agents of God.
Finally, part of the humility of our role in creation is to have a sense of limits. In our United States culture, we tend not to believe in limits in personal, social, or economic arenas. “Your world should know no boundaries” says the advertisement for a brokerage firm. “If you put your mind to it, you can do anything,” we say to our children. “We can use up the world’s resources because human ingenuity will come up with something to fix the problems” say the economists. But this is a cultural chimera. Even the Bible knows the sense of limits in our dominion. Adam and Eve were not to eat of the tree in the garden of Eden. Humans are to work six days and stop—with the animals and the land. The Book of Job tells us there are vast areas of creation left untouched by human presence—at least there were.
In this part of the essay, I have devoted an inordinate amount of time and space speaking of God the creator and our role in creation, because this is where our transformation needs to happen. If the new reformation calls for a conversion to Earth, then we need to attend to the changes in thought, perception, and behavior to make this happen. In the end, of course, we really do not know the mysteries of life and we do not know the nature of God. Much is hidden from us. And much is unknown. Nevertheless, we have glimpses. And these glimpses give us the trust that God is with us active with grace that bends toward love and justice.
The Second Article: Redemption as New Creation
In his catechism reflections on the second article, Luther affirms that “Jesus is true God and true man who through his sufferings and death has freed me from sin to live in his kingdom.” For this new reformation, we suggest that redemption should encompass not only the individual but also the restoration and fulfillment of all creation. Redemption is ongoing creation and re-creation. It is new creation. All of a piece. So it is integral to God’s activity to engage in work that offers not only personal salvation but also redeems communities, nations, and the rest of nature.
Redemption is incarnation
Again, this redemptive work is incarnational. John tells us: “The Word became flesh”—an amazing statement. This is the Word that was active in creation. Nothing was created that was not created through the Word. And, in John’s view, creation therefore attests to Christ—light, water, wine, bread, vines and branches, gates, ways, and shepherds. Again, created things (created by the divine) become vehicles for the divine. The critical point about incarnation for the new reformation is that it shows that the movement of God is toward en-fleshment. God moves toward embodiment. This places an enormous affirmation on being human. Some theologies say: God became human so humans can become divine. That is not the thrust of biblical or Lutheran theology. Lutheran theology says: God became human so that humans could be freed to be the human beings we were created to be. God moves toward Earth and affirms creation. The Bible affirms the resurrection of the body. The Bible envisions that Jesus will return and that God will dwell in the midst of God’s people in the new Jerusalem. From creation to redemption to fulfillment, it is a matter of God manifesting and emerging in creation, not taking people out of creation.
With regard to incarnation, it is important to emphasize the full humanity of Jesus. In today’s world, this means seeing Jesus as a human being rooted in and dependent on Earth just as much as any other human being. We have stories in the Bible about Jesus coming down from heaven and Jesus being born of a virgin. The creeds affirm that Jesus was fully divine. However, these stories do not obviate the fact that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was born of a woman. From our modern biological point of view, here is the primary Christological affirmation for the new reformation: Jesus was a mammal. He was a higher primate. He was in the gene pool. Just like all humans. This ringing affirmation speaks volumes about the nature of Jesus’ ministry and mission and about the potential for life on this planet. If Jesus was fully human in this sense, then Jesus was God en-fleshed in solidarity not only with humans but by extension also with all other creatures and inanimate parts of creation upon which humans are dependent. If he depended on air, water, plants, climate, terrain, soil, sun, and moon, as all humans do, then Jesus was indeed related to all of life, not just to other humans. To say that Jesus was a mammal is perhaps the theological test in our time of the claim that Jesus was fully human. With this affirmation as a starting point, our understanding of God and Jesus changes, broadens, deepens, and is transformed.
Now we can see in a new way what Jesus did. For example, we can see more clearly that the kingdom Jesus inaugurated was not an escape from this world or a kingdom for another world. Rather, it was redemptive of this life. The kingdom of God has arrived here! In his prayer, Jesus prays that the kingdom come on Earth. And it was redemption for humans and for the whole creation as well. When Jesus announces that the kingdom of God had arrived, we see restoration of life—the sick healed, sinners forgiven, demoniacs freed of possession, the lame walking, the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, and the poor receiving good news preached to them. We see people restored to the wholeness that was possible foso there is no hungerr them as creatures of God. The kingdom of God also includes the capacity for Jesus to lie down with the wild animals without fear, to calm a threatening storm, and to bring forth food in the desert. As such, Jesus is inaugurating and foreshadowing the restoration of all creation. Furthermore, in Revelation, the image of the future when the kingdom will arrive fully is an image of trees bearing fruit throughout the year, water crystal clear and abundantly available to all without cost, and leaves of the trees a healing for the nations (Rev 21). All of this depicts redemption as the restoration of all creation—indeed, “new creation” (Gal 6:16).
Jesus’ life was devoted to restoring creation. In Jesus’ view, God not only counts the number of hairs on our head (Matt 10:30); God also knows the fall of every sparrow. Does not this give us a glimpse through a tiny window into God’s infinite love for all things in life? Can we not incorporate this love of God for all creation into our understanding of the kingdom Jesus was inaugurating?
Not just Jesus’ life and message but also his death was for the restoration of all creation. We have so individualized the meaning of the cross that we have lost its larger vision. “Jesus died for my sins to be forgiven” is a common statement of faith. But if that is all that we affirm about Jesus’ death we have missed its full power. Consider what the author of Colossians writes: “For in him all the fullness of the Godhead was pleased to dwell and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col 1:19-20). God is concerned with more than individuals. Jesus’ death breaks down the dividing wall of hostility between peoples and nations (Eph 2:14). Jesus’ death brings reconciliation—peace and justice—among all things in the whole creation. This is the biblical vision we Lutherans need to embrace in our time. As Joseph Sittler argued, only then will our image of God as a God of the universe and our image of Jesus as the cosmic Christ of the universe be large enough to address the size of the problems we face.
Larry Rasmussen tells the story of a congregation in Africa that has the following call and response. The leader says: What did we used to believe? And the people say, “That Jesus died for our sins!” and “And what do we believe now?” the leader continues. And the people say, “That Jesus died for all creation!” This is the ringing acclamation from the biblical materials that we need to make so that we can rise to the challenges of our time. We need this affirmation to see that God and Jesus are committed to this life, that they seek to reconcile all of life, and that they call us to live in ways that restore rather than destroy this creation. If God is in all things “working for good,” then we ought to be doing that also. Rather than doing what we want to do and asking God to bless it, we should be seeking what in the world God is doing and asking how we can be agents of God’s ongoing creative and redemptive activity.
Securing the well-being of the most vulnerable
The kingdom announced by Jesus was about restoring the vulnerable in society—sick, demon possessed, lepers, the unclean, sinners, women, outcasts, poor, and oppressed. The premise of this kingdom work in restoring Israel is that the way to secure the well-being of a society is to welcome and care for the vulnerable and the marginalized. Our theology of the cross reinforces that commitment by showing Jesus and God-in-Jesus identifying in solidarity with society’s outcasts: “He was numbered among transgressors” (Lk 22:37). Now we need to expand this circle of compassion to see that we also care for the most vulnerable in nature—endangered animals, threatened ecosystems, loss of plant diversity. We now know that what may appear to us to be insignificant members of an ecosystem may be the critical member that holds the ecosystem together and on which other species depend. This is a comprehensive creation-care approach to the kingdom of God. Whether human communities or ecosystems, securing the life of the most vulnerable members is not only the way of Jesus; it is the way to secure the whole—society and ecosystem alike
A theology of the cross prevents us from having a romantic view of nature. Nature can be overwhelmingly violent and destructive. Ernest Becker has called Earth one large-scale “compost heap” from all the gnawing and defecation, the rotting and decaying, the death and destruction that has taken place in nature on a massive scale since the onset of life. Nevertheless, our affirmation is this: If God is fully present in such an awful and violent reality as the crucifixion, then God is present and in solidarity in everything that exists, no matter what. We do not need to deny the violent and destructive parts of nature. God is everywhere and in all things seeking redemption and reconciliation.
Justification by grace in the new reformation
Justification by grace is at the core of our identity as Lutherans. In the context of our twentieth-first century world. justification becomes foundational for our actions in support of Earth. Lutherans have tended in the past to think of salvation mainly in terms of the forgiveness of sins. But Luther himself, in the Small Catechism, wrote of a more encompassing redemption as “the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.” Also, biblical and theological studies of justification in the past generation, sparked by the Lutheran biblical scholar and bishop Krister Stendahl, have helped to distinguish justification from forgiveness as different models of redemption.
In the justification model, Luther defines sin as being curved in upon ourselves in bondage to religious and cultural standards that we seek to meet in order to justify ourselves. Justification by grace means that we have been set right with God by grace apart from our efforts to meet such laws and standards. Hence, justification by grace is quite radical in approach. Justification by grace accomplishes two things: God by-passes and disempowers standards as a basis for justifying us, and it frees us from our project to justify ourselves.
First, by grace, law is eliminated as a basis for justifying ourselves before God (Gal 3:23-4:7). When Paul talks about a fall from grace, he is not talking about falling into some sinful binge or out of favor with people. Rather, he is talking about reverting to living by law as means to justify ourselves (Gal 5:4). By so doing, we “drop out of grace.” By removing law as a basis for justification, God is not simply removing religious law (in Paul’s case, the Torah and, in Luther’s case, canon law). God is removing all the social, economic, and cultural standards by which societies seek to define people and by which people seek to justify themselves, including, for example, the capital market system of economic achievement. Freely-given grace undercuts and disempowers the systems that bind us, systems that demand allegiance, exclude, oppress, and marginalize—and that lead us to dominate and exploit other people and Earth.
Second, by rendering such systems powerless over us, justification by grace liberates me from my project to justify myself. Here sin is understood as bondage (4:8-11). As long as we engage in a project to justify ourselves, we are curved in upon ourselves. When we are trying to justify ourselves, it is always about us. That is true not only of individuals but also of systems. Larry Rasmussen has suggested that humanity as a whole is curved in upon itself as it uses and misuses Earth in the project to dominate and justify.
However, when the need to justify ourselves and our nation or culture is removed, we no longer need to act out of self-interest. If we are trying to justify ourselves, we love others in so far as they help us in our project to justify ourselves (6:13). If we are already justified by grace, we have no project to do. So we can love others not for our sake, but for their sake. This is how God generates true love and justice that is not based on self-interest. Based on this same freedom, we are also enabled to take the altruistic actions now needed to serve creation.
Once we are justified by grace, everything has to do with relationships. When justification by grace frees us from laws and standards, we are thrown into relationships of love and grace. Justification does not leave us simply with a favorable verdict, as if the main outcome of justification is that God has a favorable attitude of acceptance toward us. It is more than that. Justification is the onset of an intimate relationship. God relates to us by making God’s self accessible to us, and we are liberated to receive it in relationship. God reconciles us to the reality of God, such that we experience grace in an ongoing way. And once we are set in this right relationship with God, then we are set right with ourselves, with others, and with all of creation. Luther saw this in spades. Once we are justified freely by grace, we are freed to live for our neighbor, freed to be a productive citizen, and, now, freed to care for creation.
What does all this remarkable freedom from laws and rules mean for our experience of Earth? Once we are freed from the systems that bind us, we have an open future. There is “new creation!” (1:4; 6:15). New creation is apocalyptic, not in the sense of the end of the world but in the sense of the end of our way of being in the world and the onset of another way. As Paul says, “. . . the world has been crucified to me and I to the world” (6:13). And he adds, “The only thing that matters is new creation.” We are freed to experience the world as new creation. We are freed to address new circumstances, freed to imagine, freed to live for a new world.
Paul makes this connection between redemption and a new world even more explicit in his second letter to the Corinthians: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. Everything old has passed away. Behold, everything has become new” (2 Cor. 5:17). This is an astounding statement. For any who are in Christ, all of creation is new. The old has passed away. God has made all things new. The whole of the New Testament and Christianity can be seen through the lens of this passage. It is time to claim this affirmation as a clarion call to re-form our church to its possibilities for our day. It is time reclaim justification in our time and to build on the creation traditions in the Bible and in our Lutheran heritage as means to bring our church into a new age. It is time for creation to be new for us!
Our human vocation
As we have said, in this new creation, we are liberated from principalities and powers and we are freed for relationships: new relationships with God, with ourselves, with others, and now with all of nature. What kinds of relationships of love and grace can emerge in our relationship with Earth community?
This new life is spoken of not in terms of living by laws and standards but in terms of vocation. Vocation is God’s call and our response and responsibility. We are freed from a religious vocation to please God and freed for a human calling to love and serve others. In our time, that vocation encompasses a call to care for creation. Justification frees us to recover our “original vocation”—namely, to serve and to protect the Earth (Gen 2:15). We often speak of an “original blessing” that affirms our original goodness as human beings. Now we need to embrace our “original vocation” as earth-keepers, as servants of creation. Christ has redeemed us so that we can join Earth community in restoring creation.
Joseph Sittler once remarked that our most fundamental vocation is not the vocation of a career or a vocation to be a minister or even our vocation to be a Christian. Rather, the true vocation is our “human vocation,” a call to embrace our human vocation to care for our neighbor to care for Earth. Justification frees us for this human vocation. We are freed to be the human beings we were created to be: look after family, be a good citizen, love the neighbor, take special care for the poor—and care for creation We have choices every day to love and serve not only our neighbor but also to love and serve Earth.
This human vocation as earth-keepers is a communal vocation as church. The church is rooted in the proclamation of the Word and in the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion, because these are the means of grace—the rituals that assure us that we will be rooted in God’s grace in all our human efforts. As we have indicated, the Word and sacraments keep us close to earth and God’s creation through the ordinary elements of Earth as means of grace.
Rooted in grace, we live for others out of grace and gratitude. In this sense, the church exists not for its own sake but for the sake of the world. Earthkeeping is what the Church is called to do in public ministry both as individuals in our homes and in our congregations as Earth healers. The Lutheran church has always been committed to caring for the poor and the elderly, the sick and those who are mentally ill, the strangers and the marginalized, the poor and the oppressed and people of color subject to racism, people with disabilities and people who are victims of disaster, and, especially, the hungry. Think about the extent of our remarkable legacy of care for the vulnerable people of the world. Now we are challenged to widen the circle and deepen the arena to encompass the vulnerable species of animals and plants and eco-systems. This leads us to re-see all of our commitments as a commitment to the vulnerable of Earth community. Earth is not one more item or cause on a list of critical concerns. Rather, Earth is the matrix in which all of these concerns are embedded. Earth is the matrix of risk as well as life and salvation.
Two Kingdoms and more
In traditional Lutheranism, our human vocation is played out in two arenas: the kingdom related to the church and the kingdom related to civil society, including both political and economic structures and activities. These identify both the spheres of God’s activity as well as the arenas of our human response and responsibility. Now, if the church exists for the sake of the world, we understand this to include all creation. So we need to multiply these kingdoms to include the animal kingdom, the plant kingdom, and the mineral kingdom. These also are spheres of God’s activity and arenas of our response and responsibility. This does not mean that they are separate arenas and that care for creation is an addition to our vocation and our stewardship. Rather, the kingdom of God’s whole creation is the encompassing orbit within which we carry out our vocation in all these kingdoms—regions of reality that interweave and overlap in one seamless web of creation. And we do so as servants and agents of the cross, whereby we are in solidarity with the least and most vulnerable human and other-kind in creation.
The ethics and discipleship of our human vocation
Because we are justified by grace, our ethic is based on freedom from laws and rules that bind and enslave and that limit our capacity to respond to new circumstances. While guided by Scripture and wisdom, ours is a radical situational ethic based on relationships of love and grace that are driven by God’s relationship of love for us. We can see this in Paul. We can see this on Luther, for example, in his Freedom of the Christian, as well as in his catechisms where he focuses at the spirit of the commandments. This freedom liberates us to address new problems and changing circumstances in God’s world. We are not limited to playing Bibleland. In fact, the biblical writers themselves created new ethics and new theologies as they faced new audiences and social situations and new circumstances. The Bible authorizes us to do the same. This is also what Luther did in his time. So we do not need to play “Reformationland.” The way to be faithful to the Bible and to Luther is to relate ethical commitments of love to new situations—in the tension between being faithful to our tradition and at the same time open to what we learn about God’s world today and what we can seek to discern that God is doing in the world—so that we can address God’s world in our time. We are authorized to do this. So we are liberated to address new and complex problems, including the environmental state of the world. We do so not as ones who dominate and exploit but as servants to our human and other-kind neighbors. And we do so with love and with grace.
The ethics of the new reformation sees social justice and ecological commitment as one. We need to speak of Earth community, encompassing all of life as a unified whole—human and other creatures, plants, rocks, water, and air. We cannot separate human justice and Earth justice. Our commitment to social justice is doubled by the realization that there is no human justice without clear air and clean water, food for all, and the possibility of an intimate, nurturing relationship with nature. Wars often involve conflict over natural resources, wars often involve the fight over limited territory for ethnic communities, and wars always involve destruction of the natural order. Human justice is Earth care, because humans are integral to Earth. The so-called “environment” is not just a backdrop or a setting in which justice or injustice takes places. The environment, whether human-made or fully natural, is all part of the evolutionary context in which peace and justice play themselves out.
The social justice movement and the environmental movement sometimes have been separate and sometimes at odds with each other. James Cone, the well-known originator of Black Theology, has noted that there is a common view by environmentalists that “Blacks don’t care about the environment” and, at the same time, there is a common view among social justice advocates that “White people care more about the endangered whale and the spotted owl than they do about the survival of young blacks in our nation’s cities.” The truth is, Cone concludes, we need each other because we “are fighting the same enemy—human beings’ domination of each other and nature.”
Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff has made the same argument: “Liberation theology and ecological discourse have something in common . . . . Both discourses have as their starting point a cry: The cry of the poor for life, freedom, and beauty (cf. Exod 3:7) and the cry of the earth (cf. Rom 8:22-23). Both seek liberation of the poor . . . and a liberation of the Earth.” In an effort to see the movements as one, people often speak in terms of ecological justice (or eco-justice), namely, the interrelated and integrated quest for justice for all Earth-community.
Again, an eco-justice ethic involves a radical solidarity with the least. Justification begins by leveling the playing field in principle and at the same time liberating people from self-orientation to make it so in actuality by caring for the poor and the vulberable—not from a position of hierarchy but of mutuality and solidarity with the weakest members! This was true of Paul in Antioch (Gal 2:11-12) and in Galatia (Gal 5:7-12) and in Corinth (1Cor 11:17-34) and in Romans (Rom 14:1-23). He always sided with the weaker members who were being disregarded or dominated by others. This was true also of Luther and his commitment to care for impoverished neighbors. And it is true of our history as Lutherans. Just look at the institutions we support: homes for the aged, orphanages, immigrant services, Lutheran World Relief, disaster relief, hospitals, adoption and counseling services, the anti-hunger initiative, and on and on.
As such, in our quest for eco-justice, we note the need to extend this commitment to vulnerable Earth. We know that the two-thirds world countries suffer the most from ecological degradation, and they have the fewest resources to cope with the consequences. We know that when ecological disasters strike, such as hurricane Katrina, those most vulnerable are affected the most—the elderly, the sick, the poor, people of color. Environmental racism is the discrimination made against people of color when it comes to ecological risk, whether it is factories that emit air pollution or the dumping of toxic waste or compromises about clean water. In every case of racial and class injustice, ecology is a factor. We know now that the very lack of contact with the natural world, such as in inner city neighborhoods, has dire consequences. We also know the tragic parallels between the oppression of women and the degradation of Earth that have led dominant cultures to exploitation and degradation of “nature.”
Exploitation of human beings usually goes hand in hand with exploitation of land, water, and air. Those who despoil the land often also exploit the workers. Those who pollute the land and water with pesticides and herbicides most often also place those who work for them at risk of health. Those who strip-mine and strip forests put workers at risk and lower the quality of life in those geographical areas. Consider the differences between standard commercial coffee and fair trade coffee. Most coffee is produced by a system in which the coffee plants have been grown on plantations in the global South where the land is stripped, crops are made to grow by toxic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides; the workers (often including children) are paid below-standard wages; they are subjected to long hours in the sun and exposure to toxins; and there are about five middle-people who get most of the profits. By contrast, fair-trade, organic, shade-grown coffee is produced under very different conditions: trees and shrubs are preserved on the land and their foliage serves as fertilizer; the workers are in a cooperative; they are paid a living wage and work under healthy conditions; and there are few middle-people. The production of most coffee is a common example of exploitation both of the poor and of the Earth. The fair-trade alternative is humane to people and sustainable for nature. We need “fair trade everything”!
Giving Voice to Nature
How can we give voice to the most vulnerable? We do poorly giving the most vulnerable humans a voice in decision-making and in law and policy development. They simply do not have a say in decisions that greatly affect their lives. Because there are no animals or plants to speak and protest with their own voices, they tend to disappear from the process when decisions are made affecting their life and well-being. Therefore, we need to figure out how to give voice to animals, plants, minerals, and the ecosystem. This goes to animal rights and the responsibility to give trees legal standing, and to protect the soil, the air and the waterways from being despoiled. So who will speak for creation? If it is indeed true that “not one sparrow is forgotten in God’s sight” (Lk 12: 6), who will speak for the sparrow?
How do we give voice to other-kind? Even talk about our concern for the “environment” is anthropocentric. The question is: whose environment? From the point of view of other-kind, we are part of their environment, the environment of animals and plants—and generally we are not a healthy or productive environment for them. Environmental assessments are critical and indispensable. Such assessments explain the potential impact that our decisions will make on the natural world. But how can we make it personal? How can we get their voice?
Several years ago, I taught a course on “Greening Your Congregation.” We used an environmental case study book by James Martin-Schramm. He had case studies about all kinds of ecological dilemmas, from deforestation to blocking salmon runs to putting a Walmart store on a wetlands area. In preparation for each class, we assigned people voices from the case story under consideration—a company representative, a local merchant, a city council member, someone whose job would be affected, an environmentalist, and so on. And we also assigned students to be voices for the natural world—animals and plants in the wetlands, the wetlands itself as an eco-system, the soil that would be degraded, the salmon struggling to spawn upstream, the trees in the decimated forest. Even though we were using our human voices to speak for these natural phenomena, it made an enormous difference to do it this way. The process made it profoundly personal to hear from the salmon and the salamanders and the aspen trees depicting, often with great emotion, the impact our decisions would have upon them. Perhaps in all of our decisions we need to do an environmental assessment that hears the personal “cry of the Earth” by speaking on behalf of all living and non-living things affected by what we do.
If we do not do Earth-justice, we will never adequately be doing human justice. Clearly we are about human justice. That is our priority. But if we think purely from self-interest, the problem is this. If we care about the rest of creation only for the sake of human justice and survival, it may not work. We may need to do what needs to be done for nature in its own right to ensure human survival. Only if we love creation for its own sake, only if we love animals and plants and land and air and water for their own sake, and want them to survive for their sake, will we adequately do what needs to be done also to assure human justice and survival. All creation is in this together. If we are interested in Earth justice only for human justice, we may not get human justice. That is why our justice work is rooted in justification. It is our redemption through justification by grace that frees us from being turned in upon ourselves and empowers us for the altruism necessary to love creation for its own sake.
The Third Article: The Holy Spirit sustains and sanctifies Creation
In his small catechism, Luther says that “The Holy Spirit calls us, enlightens us with his gifts, sanctifies and preserves us in true faith.” For a new reformation in an Ecozoic Age, we Christians can broaden the work of the Holy Spirit to encompass all creation and to inspire our care for creation. Theologically, then, the Holy Spirit is the giver, sustainer, and sanctifier of life. How much more ecological can this be—the Holy Spirit bringing about a renewed and sustained and sacred Earth?
The Spirit gives and renews life
In one sense, the Spirit is the ongoing expression of grace for the Christian life. It is the ongoing expression of justification in relationship. As we have argued, justification is the onset of an intimate relationship. It is reconciliation with the reality of God, such that God’s grace represents God’s self-giving in grace in an ongoing way. In a sense, the creative activity of the Spirit provides continuity between the giftedness of creation and the giftedness of God’s very self. It is the Spirit that inspires and empowers us to love creation as God does.
The Spirit provides the ongoing urge that renews and sustains life in general. I once asked Joseph Sittler if he thought he could identify evidence for the existence of God. He replied that there certainly was no direct evidence. Then he added, “Recently when the Three Mile Island nuclear plant leaked radiation that completely destroyed life around the nuclear plant, several days later there were flowers blooming right next to the facility!” That, he said, represents the implicit urge to life that underlies all things.” We can add that this is the urge underlying life that impels the great diversity of plants and animals to emerge and to organize into greater and greater complex fields of being. I believe we can name this urge to life as the work of the Holy Spirit renewing and sustaining life, all of life.
Furthermore, in this process, the Spirit creates communion and community in diversity. We see this most clearly in the human community. In Acts, the Spirit is given to people of all nations, and they hear the mighty acts of God in their own languages, honoring differences and bridging differences to create unity without conformity (Acts 2:5-11). This reflects the entire movement outward of early Christianity to embrace the incredible diversity of ethnic groups and cultures that spread across the Mediterranean Sea, as Revelation puts it, from “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev 5:9). It is the Holy Spirit coming upon the gentiles that leads early Christians to embrace them and discover unity with them (for example, Acts 10:44-48 and Gal 3:1-5). As such, the Spirit pushes outward to encompass greater diversity, including the diversity of creation.
In the New Testament, the Spirit is given to the community as a whole; individuals experience the Spirit by virtue of being part of the community; and all have gifts that contribute to the well-being of the whole (I Cor 12:1-31). This is similar to the way a sustainable ecosystem works. Just so, the Holy Spirit works in creation to guide humans to see our place in Earth-community so that we recognize the human gifts and the human limitations to cooperate together with the rest of creation so as to be sustainable as creation. In this way, it is the communion of the Holy Spirit that secures the relationship with all creation as a communion of life. In the new reformation, might we not understand that the Spirit is present to all creatures? In this regard, might we not explore the idea that a widened view of Earth community may involve a notion of the “priesthood of all creatures’?
In terms of our human participation in this Earth community, the Spirit is seeking to sanctify us, make us holy, and in so doing lead us to treat all living things as holy, as sanctified. In our relationship with all living things—indeed our priesthood in relation to nature—we will do well if we are guided by the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:22). With respect for life, we can be guided by Paul’s dictum in the hymn to love: “Love does not insist on its own way” (13:5).
Walking by the Spirit
In response to the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit, we can also bear the spiritual witness as Earth partners in our daily lives. We in the global North can act in solidarity with those who are less fortunate and who use fewer resources. We can recognize, for example, that our living spaces are connected directly to virtually every ecological issue we face. Consider your home: the emissions from furnaces; the food that has been transported from a distance; beef production which contributes more to global warming than do automobiles; the gas and oil in the car in the driveway; the water that comes in and goes out of the house; paper for office and household use; the cleaning products that enter the waste stream; the pesticides and herbicides used on lawn and garden that leech into the watershed; electricity from power plants; the wood and leather in the products purchased; the garbage that goes into landfills; and on and on. We are connected every day to the ecological problems plaguing our world. We can make choices every day that have an impact for good or ill on the well-being of God’s Earth. We can work to restore creation in our own homes!
And we can see this as a spiritual discipline, as integral to the process of becoming holy—deepening sanctification as a response to the work of the Holy Spirit among us and in all creation. We have difficulty connecting Spirit to such Earthcare. Several years ago, I taught a class on “The Future of Creation.” I asked the students to do an exercise in spiritual discipline by finding and practicing as many ways as they could to conserve water in their daily lives. The next week, I asked them to report how it went. Some of them shared a few things they had done, but there was not much enthusiasm for it. I asked, “Why?” The problem, they said, was that “We could not think of conserving water as a spiritual discipline.” I asked them, “What in your minds constitutes a spiritual discipline?” And they said, “Things like prayer, meditation, Bible reading, worshiping, reflection, talking to a friend.” So for them the Spirit was not related to the material. They had difficulty seeing “earthy things” like conserving water as a spiritual discipline. They did not expect to encounter God in caring for the water they used. In subtle ways, they had equated spiritual with ethereal rather than with tangible things around them. But if the whole Earth is filled with God’s glory, our tender loving kindness toward the things of nature that we use on a daily basis can be a source of deep spiritual renewal. These are holy acts. Our incarnational theology helps us to overcoming this dualism of spirit and matter.
This problem is connected with what we described earlier as the opportunity to treat life as sacramental, to show reverence, to exercise restraint and limitation, not to take the world around us for granted. A fellow pastor told me a story about an occasion when he served Native Americans who lived on an impoverished reservation. He went into the desert and visited a family in their humble home. It was hot, and before he left, he asked for a glass of water. He took the glass to the faucet, turned it on and let it run until it got cool, filled the glass, let the water run while he was drinking and then rinsed the glass out, put it down and turned off the faucet. When he turned back from the sink, he saw horrified faces. In less than two minutes, he had used up their family’s ration of water for the entire week. If this morning you took a shower, washed your hair, brushed your teeth, letting the water run, washed the breakfast dishes, and flushed the toilet a few times, it is estimated that you used more than forty-five gallons of water! This calls for spiritual discipline in the care with which we use the resources at our disposal every day.
What if we learned to express reverence intimately for all the things we see and use? And what if we Christians brought these commitments to labor—work places, factories, farms, businesses, organizations, corporations—with which we are affiliated? What if we collectively advocated for Earth-friendly laws and policies in the public realm? What if we in the global North saw it as a spiritual discipline to advocate for changes in systems of politics and policies of corporations that serve to exploit people and nature throughout the world? What if we participated in hands-on efforts to restore degraded habitats? What if it became part of our collective consciousness to avoid certain behaviors and embrace others—simply as part of our life together? Our mission engagement with the world must include the deliberate engineering of salient eco-ethics and radical changes of lifestyle, the commitments and the sacrifices—the new ways of living needed—for a just and sustainable world.
The Spirit as the Source of our life
The Spirit is the source of our love for creation. We need to ask: What will motivate us for this labor of love? What will sustain us for the duration? Will we be motivated by fear? We have reason to be afraid, but fear would not sustain us for long and it certainly will not motivate others. Will we be motivated by guilt or shame? These emotions might lead us to realize our culpability and make some changes, but, again, these would not sustain us for the long haul. We certainly may be motivated by anger and outrage at how much wanton destruction is happening and how little is being done, especially at the corporate and governmental levels. But anger will exhaust us before long and throw us into bitterness and resentment. What about grief at the loss of life as we have known it? Again, this is an appropriate response but certainly not life-sustaining. We may see all these emotions as alarm systems—fear, guilt, shame, anger, grief—all as appropriate signals in a warning system that alerts us that something is very wrong, but not good grounds for making wise decisions or for providing the nurture needed to sustain us.
In the end, we discover the answer with the very God of creation who impels our mission. What can sustain the whole of creation is the presence of the Holy Spirit in all of life. Gerard Manley Hopkins referred to this presence as the “dearest freshness deep down things.” Wendell Berry names it “that fund of grace out by which alone we live.” This reservoir of God’s presence and grace, God’s love for all creation does not quit. And it does nothing but generate more love and grace in life. This is the stream of life that empowers and sustains us for a new reformation.
Eschatology: The fulfillment of creation
Just as Christians have often reconceived our “stories of origin” in light of what we know about our evolving universe, so also we need now to reconceive our “stories of fulfillment” to reflect what we know about our modern world.
Just as we have learned much from the biblical “stories of origin” in Genesis and other passages of the Bible, so also we can learn much from the biblical scenarios of fulfillment. Just as we do not take the creation stories as scientific description, so also we may consider not taking literally the first-century beliefs about Jesus returning on the clouds of heaven or the idea of judgment as a single final event. Either way, we can learn an enormous amount about God’s vision for creation from these hopes and promises that transformed and inspired the early Christians—the expectation of a Christ who returns here to redeem Earth; the hope of all things in heaven and on earth being reconciled in communion; the vision of everything in heaven, on earth, and under the earth praising God in a stirring choir of creation; the image of a renewed heaven and a renewed Earth with peace and justice for the poor and oppressed, every tear wiped away; and a portrait of the Holy City of Jerusalem in which water and the fruits of the earth are in abundance to sustain everyone.
Envisioning a new creation
The key to eschatology is that we use our imagination to conceive a world of peace and justice in creation. To imagine is to envision. If we cannot envision, we just go through the day accepting what is given us. Or we think that creating a sustainable world is a matter of tweaking what we already have, without boldly seeing and seeking a new world, a new creation. Imagine a world in which all energy was renewable energy provided freely by the universe. Imagine the soil and forests restored to sing God’s praises, native plants cultivated everywhere to feed humanity equitably, fresh water rationed so that there was enough for all, the air pure, the water clean, and the land renewed. Imagine a world in which work is safe and meaningful and productive. We can imagine laws and policies and systems in place to foster and promote such a world. And people giving reverence to life and enjoying its beauty and its usefulness as gifts–all of life thriving in harmony. The world would be our sanctuary and God our companion. This is rapture in reverse. Instead of God taking people out of the world, God pitches a tent here, dwelling among us. This would be the ethos of our life together.
Now imagine your congregation as a healing center for creation: Anyone coming to your congregation would instantly see—native trees and shrubs and grass and flowers all around drawing birds and insects and small mammals, a garden and an orchard, a worm compost pile, rain gardens in several places, a meditation area, a gravel parking area, solar panels and a wind turbine, solar-powered outside lights and signage, a bicycle rack, the inside filled with plants that clean the air and give natural beauty to the place, natural light available everywhere, energy saving lights in every outlet, motion sensitive lights in the bathrooms, no-flush urinals, fresh fruit and home baked goods for the coffee hour with fair trade coffee and ceramic cups and plates and cloth napkins, sign-up sheets for habitat restoration projects, plants in the sanctuary and an aquarium, art depicting local scenes of nature, a banner declaring “The whole earth is filled with God’s glory,” a worship invitation to praise God with all creation, local wine for communion, local flowers on the altar, green cleaning products for the communion plates and cups, and many other things not visible, such as insulation, energy-saving windows, green cleaning products, the absence of herbicides and pesticides, and a high efficiency furnace. We could go on. We need such flagship congregations living out a dramatic vision as means to enable us to be prophetic and pioneering.
Now with these visions in mind, we should take bold steps to make this a reality now! If there is to be a new reformation of our church, we need to be persistent in our determination, pervasive in our efforts, and comprehensive in our vision. We need to talk about this, preach about this, plan about this, and demonstrate it to ourselves and to the world. It needs to be part of our identity, our life together, and our mission, pervading the ethos of our community and our world. And we need to do it unilaterally without waiting for the world to go along first.
In this process, we would see our church property and our yards as little Earth communities. We would name and know the trees and shrubs and flowers and grasses. We would become familiar the birds and insects and small mammals and rodents that share our space. We would see the sacredness of our place. I recently attended a communion service outside. The presiders invited us to remove shoes and socks and feel holy ground beneath us. They invited us to embrace the trees as part of the sign of peace we share with each other—to wish them “peace” and to say “Thank you for all that you do for us.” When communion ended, they scattered the leftover bread across the lawn and poured out the leftover wine, saying “We return you to the Earth from where you came, with gratitude and love”—in effect offering bread and wine to the land. With such worship every week, we would be transformed to live this vision of care and love for God’s beloved creation.
Facing the end of the world
What do we do with apocalyptic expectations of the New Testament? Most early Christians believed that the end of the world as they knew it was imminent and that soon Christ would return for final judgment and salvation. Perhaps, instead of thinking of apocalyptic expectations as otherworldly and irrelevant to our time, we can see it as analogous to our situation. We too are facing a possible end of the world as we humans know it because of drastic changes that may take place in the earth’s environment. Parallels between New Testament apocalyptic expectations and the crises of our own time become obvious and may require of us a radical response.
In the face of a vision of a new world before them, the early Christians did not abandon the present age, nor did they (like we may) expect God to come and clean up their mess. On the contrary, they prepared for the salvation of the new age as a means to enjoy the full blessings of God in the present and as a means to avoid God’s judgment. We are in a similar position. On the one hand, if we are not able to repent and change our destruction of the very ecosystems that sustain human life, the consequences will be a judgment upon us. On the other hand, if we are able to repent, open ourselves to the grace and peace of God, and respond by creating a sustainable life together for future generations on Earth, the results will constitute a transformation that in some sense would represent salvation for all creation.
So, how did the early Christians act in the face of their expectation of the possible end of the world? What can we learn from them? Here are several characteristic behaviors of some early Christians that were shaped by their expectation of the end of the world.
There was a sweeping global vision of what God was doing in the world in raising Jesus from the dead and sending the Holy Spirit to spread holiness and joy throughout the world of nations and nature as new creation.
There was a deep and urgent sense of mission to call individuals and nations to repent and change behavior, illustrated by the life of the Apostle Paul and the mission charges in the Gospels (Mark 13:10; Matthew 28:19-20; Luke 24:47).
Like Jesus, the early Christians were truth-tellers. They fearlessly confronted the destructive powers-that-be and challenged their idolatry and hypocrisy, risking loss, persecution, and death. They also made penetrating analyses both of themselves and of their own culture (such as the Sermon on the Mount and the Letter of James), not just in terms of obvious evil, but also in terms of the dark side of goodness and compromises—transforming and replacing these dynamics with life-giving actions and stories.
Like Jesus, they did prophetic acts. In a sense, their lives were prophetic symbols—healing the sick, feeding the hungry, eating with outcasts, forgiving sinners, all prophetic symbols of a new age impinging on the present.
Many early Christians withdrew and dissociated from the behavior and lifestyles of the culture. Mark urged people to break with cultural values and institutions that were destructive (Mk 8:27-10:45) while the author of Revelation admonished people to “withdraw” from participation in the social and economic life of imperial and idolatrous Rome (Rev 18:4).
They not only broke from the cultures around them; they formed alternative communities of the emerging new kingdom of God, apocalyptic pockets of counter-cultural reality such as those reflected in the Gospel of John, the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2:43-47), and the First Letter of Peter (1 Pet 2:9-10). They had a vision of the future and sought to live it now in the present so as to be a light for the world. Perhaps the greatest mission of the church in our own time is to offer the world alternative communities in congregations that are signs of the kingdom of God amidst a world of commercialism and exploitation.
In all of this, the early Christians were willing to act unilaterally to create a new world without waiting for the leaders of the nation or the rest of the populace to lead the way or even to agree with them.
We can learn from this behavior of the early Christian communities facing what they believed to be the end of the current world order as a means to discover alternative behaviors for our faith communities as we face ultimate choices for avoiding ecological disaster and for creating a new, sustainable life on earth.
Envisioning New Creation
This is the power of eschatology, the capacity to imagine a new world and to enact it in courageous and pioneering ways. The early church announced an apocalyptic sea-change that occurred as a result of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This apocalypse transformation continues today. Contemporary churches, in response to the enormity of the ecological crises we face, are challenged to be “transformed in the renewal of your minds to what is the good and perfect and acceptable will of God” (Rom 8:22-23) for our time—the mission to restore God’s creation and to form a sustainable life for God’s beloved Earth community.
This is what the early Christians had: a vision of a new world, a new creation, not the end of the material world but the end of the destroyers of the world, the end of the old order of domination and exploitation, a world of reverence and peace and justice. They entered this new world and lived it out, enacted it then and there even in the presence of the old order. The story about Luther tells it all. We are not sure if this event happened, but it is nevertheless true. Luther was asked what he would do today if he knew the end of the world would take place tomorrow. Luther replied, “I would plant an apple tree.” That line represents our commitment to this created world, to the value of its very physicality, and to the fruits of our labor in it. That line represents our faith in the activity of God working for good in all things. That line represents our commitment to live into this new world even now. It is a metaphor for all the actions we can take to enter into this new world, enter the kingdom of God. Let us take actions that trust the future and that invest in the future at the same time. Our affirmation of the resurrection of the body offers hope for new life in this world. Resurrection is an affirmation of the life of Jesus and an assurance of a future in God’s hands.
Life after Death
Now back to personal life after death. I have invited you to bracket it temporarily in order to consider God’s commitment to creation. We cannot speculate what personal afterlife is like, but we live in the confidence that “whether we live or die, we are the lord’s” (Rom 14:8). The resurrection assurance of life after death with God offers profound comfort for the innumerable people in this life who have suffered physical and mental illness, poverty, loneliness, oppression, violence, violation, rejection, grief, torturous death, and so many other forms of human misery and tragedy. The promise is that God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. How this will happen, we do not know. But we have enough glimpses of the love of God and the resurrected reality of Jesus to know that it is indeed possible. This is something we all long for and pray for—for ourselves and others.
However, the assurance that our life is in God’s hands is not an opiate that leaves us in a quietist state while we wait for death to come. Rather, the assurance of life after death generates in us the courage to live for love and justice, to risk this life in service to others, and to take bold and sacrificial steps to care for Earth. Grace is the main fruit of the first Reformation, namely that we are freed by God’s eternal love to know that we will be loved eternally. Therefore, we can risk and sacrifice and expend our lives to sustain future generations. Understood this way, life after death does not in any way diminish our commitment to the endurance of God’s creation. Rather, it is the springboard for action on behalf of God’s people in service of God’s beloved creation.
Conclusion: What must we do to have a new reformation?
Our hope is that a profound love of Earth and a deep desire to restore and to protect Earth enters the hearts of all Lutherans and transforms the deep structures of the way we live. Our hope is that the new reformation becomes an integral part of our congregational life. Our hope is that the new reformation is integral to our institutional commitments. Our hope is that we claim as an ELCA denomination that our mission to the vulnerable is a mission to all of Earth community—a comprehensive mission that so pervades our life together that it becomes a renewal of the entire church, a new reformation for our time. I am very grateful to Paul Santmire, Kurt Hendel, and Sandy Roberts for their reflections on and critique of this essay. Despite their best efforts, the theological misconceptions and lack of clarity contained here belong solely to me.  Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (New York: Bell Tower, 1999)  See five mandates for mission in a new reformation in David Rhoads and Barbara Rossing, “A Beloved Earth Community: Christian Mission in an Ecological Age” in Mission after Christendom: Emergent Themes in Contemporary Mission (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010) 128-143.  For ELCA eco-justice initiatives and resources, go to http://www.elca.org/Our-Faith-In-Action/Justice/Advocacy/Congregational-Resources/Caring-For-Creation.aspx and http://www.elca.org/Our-Faith-In-Action/Justice/Advocacy/Issues/Environment-and-Energy.aspx. More initiatives can be can be found at www.lutheransrstoringcreation.org. Note two important conferences in the summer of 2012: The Vocation of a Lutheran College Conference dealt with “A Challenge to Embrace Creation: Lutheran Higher Education, Sustainability, and Stewardship” and The Convocation of Teaching Theologians was held on the subject of “Eco-Lutheranism?”  Larry Rasmussen, “Waiting for the Lutherans” in Currents in Theology and Mission 2009 (37) 86-98.  Philip Watson, Let God be God: An Interpretation of the Theology of Martin Luther (New York: AMS Press, 1947).  For an in-depth analysis of different religions and their contribution to earth-care, see the Religions of the World Ecology series edited by Evelyn Tucker and John Grim for Harvard University Press. Visit the Forum on Religion and Ecology at www.emergingearthcommunity.org.  See The Season of Creation: A Preaching Commentary, edited by Norman Habel, David Rhoads, and H. Paul Santmire (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011) 31.  Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman, The Social Construction of Reality (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966).  Thomas White, In Defense of Dolphins: The New Moral Frontier (Oxford: Blackwell publishing, 2007).  Jorge Luis Borges, “The God’s Script” in Labyrinths (New York: New Directions, 1962) 171.  Quoted by John Paarlberg in “The Glad Earth Rejoices” in Earth and Word: Classic Sermons on Saving the Planet, edited by David Rhoads (Continuum: 2007) 226.  Cited in Elizabeth Roberts and Elias Amidon, editors, Earth Prayers from around the World (San Francisco: Harpersanfrancisco, 1991) 357.  Mary Frohlich, “Under the Sign of Jonah: Studying Spirituality in a Time of Eco-Systemic Crisis” in Spiritus 9 (2009) 27-45.  Anthony Weston, Back the Earth: Tomorrow’s Environmentalism (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994).  Terence Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (Nashville: Abingdon, 2005).  Paul Santmire, The Travail of Nature: The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985).  Wendell Berry, Given (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2006) 116.  Joseph Sittler, “The Care of the earth” in The Care of the Earth and Other University Sermons (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1964).  John Paarlberg, “The Glad Earth Rejoices” in Earth and Word: Classic Sermons on Saving the Planet, edited by David Rhoads (Continuum: 2007) 226.  For resources on care for creation worship throughout the lectionary years and the optional liturgical “Season of Creation,” visit www.letallcreationpraise.org.  Joseh Sittler, “Called to Unity” in Evocations of Grace: Writings on Ecology, Theology, and Ethic, Edited By Peter Bakken and Steven Bouma-Prediger (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000) 38-50.  Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York: Free Press, 1973).  For further development of these themes, see David Rhoads and Sandra Roberts, “Justification by Grace: Shame and Acceptance in a County Jail” in The Shame Factor: How Shame Shapes Society, edited by Robert Jewett (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2010) 86-102.  Krister Stendahl, “Justification Rather than Forgiveness” in Paul among Jews and Gentiles (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976) 23-39.  Larry Rasmussen in Earthbound, a six-part DVD series sponsored by SELEC of the ELCA and produced by Seraphim.  An excellent articulation of this point from Paul’s point of view is in Robin Scroggs, Paul for a New Day (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976).  On ecological ethics, see especially Larry Rasmussen, Earth Community, Earth Ethics (Maryknoll: Orbis Press, 1996) and Willis Jenkins, Ecologies of Grace: Environmental Ethics and Christian Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).  James Cone, “Whose Earth is It Anyway?” in Earth and Word: Classic Sermons on Saving the Planet, edited by David Rhoads (New York: Continuum) 142.  Leonardo Boff, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1997) 104.  Robert Bullard, The Quest for Environmental Justice: Human Rights and the Politics of Pollution (San Francisco: Sierra Club, 2005.  Rosemary Ruether. Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1992).  Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Resisting Systemic Evil: Love as Ecological-Economic Vocation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013).  David Rhoads, Who Will Speak for the Sparrow? Eco-Justice Criticism and the New Testament” in Literary Encounters with the Reign of God (T & T Clark, 2003).  James Martin-Schramm, Christian Environmental Ethics: A Case Study Approach (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2003.  Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur” in The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967) 66.  Wendell Berry, “Original Sin” in Given (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2006) 35.  See Anthony Weston, Mobilizing the Green Imagination: An Exuberant Manifesto (Gabriola Islands, BC: New Society Publishers, 2012)