Ecology and Justice, Liturgy and Spirituality:
A Theological Autobiography*
H. Paul Santmire
When my children have heard that I was working on yet another book, they have asked, “Same old, same old?” And they were right. My publishing persona for the past four decades has been focused, not to say fixated, on the theology of nature or on what I have usually preferred to call ecological theology. This was in large measure, I think, because I could do no other. I was a full-time pastor all those years, preoccupied with officiating at the liturgy and preaching, with the care of souls and the public witness. Not a great deal of time for a broad scope of publishing adventures. This practical bent of my professional life may also explain, in part, why I have for many years felt such a theological affinity with towering classical practitioners like Irenaeus, Augustine, Luther, and Bonhoeffer. Writing books in systematic theology has never been my métier, although I have had a longstanding intellectual passion for that kind of enterprise, witness the six years of courses that I took with Paul Tillich, beginning already as an undergraduate.
Whence then my theological focus or fixation on ecological theology? This is something of a puzzle, since, in my formative theological years in the late fifties and early sixties, biblical theology was dominated by a heady and self-conscious anthropocentrism, the “God-who-acts” theology of G. Ernest Wright (with whom I took a number of courses), who pitted what he thought of as historicized biblical faith over against what Wright also called the nature religion of the Canaanites. New Testament studies was then dominated by the existential analysis of Rudolf Bultmann, a favorite of college chaplains and religion teachers. Bultmann argued, revealingly, that the groaning of the whole creation that Paul talked about in Romans 8 referred to the groaning of the human creation only. Like his neo-Kantian mentors and Kant himself, Bultmann handed nature, which he tended to view in mechanistic terms, over to the natural scientists. In systematic theology in those years, likewise, the anthropocentric theology of “salvation history” (Heilsgeschichte) was much in vogue (I started reading Oscar Cullmann and Karl Barth virtually my first day in seminary in 1957). I was told, indeed, a few years later by the American Kantian theologian who later became my dissertation advisor at Harvard Divinity School, Gordon Kaufman, that “theologians need not concern themselves with nature” (or words to that effect).
That I learned other things about nature in the course of my studies, above all from Luther and from Tillich, is another story. That I began to see that there was another, non-anthropocentric way to approach the Scriptures, especially when I read what was to become an epochal 1963 article by the scholar-pastor, who had already become a kind of role model for me, Krister Stendahl, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” is also another story. More about these things in a moment.
Nor was there much theological discussion in the late fifties and early sixties, even less public awareness, of what was already in those years becoming a major challenge for our species, the environmental crisis. This widespread ecological indifference only began to give way somewhat in the wake of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962. I myself had no idea in those years that signs of the crisis were already then apparent. I did not read the Carson book until the late sixties. I was too busy with my dissertation and a year of study in Germany and travel south of the Alps.
Yet I still found myself fascinated with the theology of nature, already in the earliest years of my theological study. Why? I think it was because of the milieu in which I grew up. Call it a subculture of sacramental Lutheranism. In my case, that Lutheranism was more particularly shaped by a mostly humanizing ethnic German earthiness. That subculture extended all the way from a profound reverence for the Eucharist to a light-hearted indulgence in the mundane joys of this life (I learned to drink beer at church picnics). That subculture also included, at least in my parents’ case, a kind of matter-of-fact reverence for the earth. When I was young, my family lived in an exurban setting in upstate New York, near Buffalo, prosperous, yes (my father was a dentist), but it was not yet suburbia, which was just then beginning to happen. My family resided in a somewhat isolated, but elegant stone house that was surrounded by woods and fields and streams. I once looked at the deed of our home for a high school history project, and found what to me were exciting references to Indian (as we said in those days) ownership of our land around 1880, which I thought of now and again as I wandered through the nearby fields and woods in solitude, contemplating redwing blackbirds, discovering pheasant nests, and overturning stones in the stream in order to observe crayfish. My father spent much of his discretionary time caring for our land, which for him especially meant planting a variety of specimen trees. The family also had a sizeable “victory garden” as many did in that World War II era, and all of us worked that garden together. I warmly remember harvesting bushels of tomatoes and helping my mother to can them.
But this early experience with the earth wasn’t only local. As soon as gasoline rationing ended after World War II, my parents packed me and my brother and sister into a station-wagon, and we spent several weeks exploring a number of national parks in the west, among them Yellowstone, Glacier, and the Black Hills. We tented almost every evening. I still recall those awestruck experiences driving and also taking numerous “sightseeing” walks, surrounded by vast wilderness vistas. My family made several such summer trips, also to the Pacific Northwest and to the Southwest. Later, as a graduate student, when I was able to turn myself loose in many intellectual directions, I suppose it was no accident that I fell in love with the writings of the nineteenth-century American naturalist and advocate for national parks (and disciple of Calvin in his heart of hearts), John Muir, whose collected works I read cover to cover.
But there was a dark side to this sacramental Lutheranism and its ethnicity, too, which I only discovered after I had entered into a quite different cultural world as an undergraduate at Harvard College in 1953. There a crisis of faith was thrust upon me, from which, I think, I have never fully recovered. I discovered the Holocaust, existentially. Or, better, the Holocaust discovered me. At the end of the war, I had seen some newsreel films about the liberation of some of the camps. The photos of the piles of bodies and the emaciated survivors horrified me. But I must have repressed those experiences, totally. As I recall, I never talked about them with anyone. Nor was I ever called upon as I recall, at home or in school or at my church, to discuss what I had seen in those films. I am not sure when the very expression, the Holocaust, gained currency in my social and religious world. Remarkably, I remained consciously oblivious to the Holocaust through the end of my high school years.
All this changed one day, as I sat in a German history class when I was a sophomore. The instructor began to review the story of the Holocaust and then to narrate how many “good Germans” turned the other way when the Jews were carted off to the camps. He talked, too, about Lutheranism’s long tradition of hostility to the Jews in Germany, beginning in a most ugly fashion with Luther himself. He also described the Lutheran traditions of unquestioning obedience to the state, predicated on a reading of Romans 13. Those were my people! That was the church which had so powerfully nourished me since I had been a child! Not a few Lutherans became “German Christians,” said the instructor. Me? World War II had long been over, but I had never even thought about the meaning of the Holocaust before! Why hadn’t we discussed it at my church? Why hadn’t synodical bodies addressed this issue or speakers at youth rallies or Bible camps? In that class that day, I found myself at the edge of tears. I still feel those tears.
Providentially, in due course I was befriended by a pastor during my crisis of faith, who was later to become my senior colleague and life-time mentor in the ministry, Henry E. Horn, of University Lutheran Church, Cambridge. He introduced me to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, among others, which opened my mind and heart to encounter the theology of the Confessing Church in Germany of that era. In the midst of a certain intellectual incoherence about such matters for a couple of years, I was subsequently assigned to a wonderful history tutor, who took me under his wing, notwithstanding the fact that he was an agnostic and that his reading of Lutheran history in Germany was much more critical than even mine had come to be. In due course, I wrote my undergraduate honors thesis on the German resistance to Hitler, which focused on a number of leading lights of the resistance movement, among them Bonhoeffer. In those studies, I also learned that the Nazis themselves were champions, in their own way, of the theology of nature! A heroic Nordic wilderness-ethos of “blood and soil” (Blut und Boden) permeated much of their propaganda.
That undergraduate experience bequeathed to me two of the themes that have been at the forefront of my theological mind and heart ever since, the theology of nature and the theology of justice, although in different ways. In light of the National Socialist celebration of nature, never again would I be able to be, if indeed I had ever been, simply a nature romantic. Nature, I had learned (although I did not know this language at that time) was in significant measure a social construction, for better or for worse. In light of the fact that the scales fell from my eyes when I looked at my own beloved Lutheran tradition, moreover, I would never again be able to think of the church, or anything else for that matter, without also thinking of the claims of justice for the despised and the oppressed.
This commitment to each of these themes, ecology and justice (I highlighted them sharply in a 1976 article in the Christian Century, reprinted in Readings in Ecology and Feminist Theology, ed. Mackinnon and McIntyre [Kansas City: Sheed & Ward, 1995], chap. 5), it turned out, left me in what I perceived to be a remarkably lonely position, especially in the early years of my theological career. In that era, both within and beyond the church, numerous advocates spoke up in behalf of defending nature. The American scene did not lack people who championed the cause of “the land” or “the wilderness,” those venerable themes from American history. Numerous advocates, again, both within and beyond the church, also dedicated themselves to fighting for justice, as the struggles against racism and the war in Vietnam moved more and more to the front page. But few were inclined to speak and act in behalf of both nature and justice. Often, therefore, I found myself talking justice with the ecology people and ecology with the justice people. This has been a struggle for me ever since. There is, in fact, a deep-seated tension between the concerns of the ecology party and the justice party, a tension, indeed, that cannot merely be talked away or resolved by some higher intellectual synthesis. But I am getting ahead of myself.
By 1963, the time had come for me to settle on a dissertation topic, in the field I had chosen, “systematic and historical theology.” I might have opted to work on Tillich, whose writings I thoroughly knew by then (I was a member of what I think was Tillich’s last graduate colloquium at Harvard, which focused on his Systematic Theology). But my theological excitement in those days — and to this very day — was not first with a Tillichian “apologetic theology” that followed a “method of correlation,” however important that was and is, it was first and foremost with the theology of the Word of God. Tillich had made a place for what he called “kerygmatic theology” and I found myself eagerly exploring that place.
This was no doubt because of my existential engagement with the story of the Confessing Church and with the figure of Bonhoeffer, in particular. For such reasons, I gravitated as a matter of course toward a dissertation on Barth, who had been so deeply involved in launching the Confessing Church. Along the way, I also thoroughly immersed myself in Luther studies, under the tutelage of Heiko Oberman. I had worked on Luther, too, during a year’s study at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia with that institution’s dogmatician at the time, Martin Heinecken. He interpreted Luther both historically and existentially, and was particularly helpful to me in opening up Luther’s rich theology of nature. Those Luther studies formed a kind of bridge for me to Barth, who himself constantly engaged the theology of Luther (especially in Barth’s long, historical footnotes in his Church Dogmatics). So it was the theology of the Word of God, rather than the theology of correlation, that most claimed my mind and heart — and still does.
But I chose to come at Barth, brashly perhaps, not on his own terms, but on my own. I decided that I wanted to study his theology of nature, notwithstanding the fact that Barth had announced in volume three of his Church Dogmatics that there is no such thing as a legitimate theology of nature (“nature” was then, and is now, notoriously difficult to define; I have regularly worked with the theological-phenomenological construct that nature is the bio-physical dimension of God’s creation). Barth self-consciously defined theology as the-anthropology, as a doctrine of “God and man”(as we all said in those days). I argued that by thus focusing his theology Barth baptized a non-theological doctrine of nature by default, the instrumental, utilitarian, and mechanistic view championed by bourgeois society in the West. Better, I maintained, self-consciously develop a theology of nature on biblical grounds (conversant with the findings of modern science, to be sure) than to end up in that kind of theological dead-end.
Although I did not deal with Barth’s sacramental theology in my dissertation, that theme was very much on my mind, too. How could Barth ever envision a theology of the real presence of Jesus Christ in Word and Sacrament, as Luther did, I wondered, if nature, the world of material existence, was only something to be viewed as a symbol, as a resource, as an instrument, or even as a machine? In this respect, my thinking had been shaped by an early and careful reading of one of Tillich’s most insightful essays, “Nature and Sacrament.” There Tillich showed that the modern Protestant theology of nature was an expression of the spirit of the victorious bourgeoisie. Was that spirit lurking deep within the monumental argument of the Church Dogmatics? I concluded that it was — notwithstanding Barth’s own laudable, but finally unconvincing efforts in the Church Dogmatics to affirm the goodness of the whole creation.
No sooner was my dissertation completed than I found myself unavoidably thrust into the — sometimes silly, sometimes poignant, often passionately committed — era of the late sixties and early seventies as a college chaplain, first for three years at Harvard, based at University Lutheran Church, then for thirteen years as Chaplain and Lecturer in Religion at Wellesley College. I did a lot of theology, as I thought of it in those days, on my feet.
I was a mostly low-profile church activist and essayist, like many others. I stood with students who sat in on the Mallinckrodt Building at Harvard, protesting the role of Dow Chemical in the Vietnam War. I served on the steering committee of what was to become a national movement, Vietnam Summer. I walked, from time to time, with a pastoral colleague, an African-American community leader, who picketed the Boston School Committee for 114 days, demanding an end to segregated schools (the famous, now infamous Boston school busing court decision arose in that context). I stood as a wary witness in an inner-city police-station once, when the call had gone out to clergy to be visibly present in such places during Boston’s “civil disturbances,” in order to help guard against police brutality. I stood in silent vigils in a suburban town square many times, gave many speeches against racism, against the war, and in behalf of the environment, all with the theology of the Confessing Church in the back of my mind.
It was a good era to be interested in both ecology and justice, theologically, notwithstanding the inherent difficulties in holding these concerns together. People in those times, for better or for worse, looked to clergy for prophetic leadership. At Wellesley, I worked with a student leader named Hillary Rodham, who had a future of some fame before her; but in those days she was only one among many similar leaders, who were morally driven by issues like peace and justice. I wish I had kept copies of my commencement prayers from those years, which became a kind of cause celebre at the College, for reasons that I never fully understood then. In retrospect, it appears to me that those prayers — notwithstanding the fact that they were indeed devotionally addressed to God or perhaps precisely because of that address — were expressions of a kind of public theology that circumstances had been calling me to develop.
In the late sixties and the seventies, I also found it relatively easy to publish op-ed pieces and other essays on the themes of ecology and justice, in journals like Dialog and in the local press. In the same vein, the biologist, Paul Lutz, and I co-authored a book intended for popular consumption, Ecological Renewal (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972). Presiding over the Sunday chapel services at Wellesley also gave me opportunity to provide a platform for and to meet and converse with leading lights of the late sixties and early seventies, people like William Sloane Coffin, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, James Cone, Jane Fonda, and progressive Catholic priests like Anthony Mullaney and James Carroll.
In those years, I discovered, too, what was for me then the new wave of theological feminism. I brought people like Mary Daly and Rosemary Ruether to the College campus, and became a public advocate of their right to a hearing, in a setting where, in those days, both faculty and students were not always interested in feminist thinking. I began to develop what was to become a deep interest in theological feminism, I hasten to add, not chiefly by any prescience, but mainly out of a sense of professional self-preservation. As a male chaplain and teacher at an all-women’s college, I knew I had to be out in front of the curve on this one. I was particularly taken, thereafter, with the developing thought of Rosemary Ruether and with the emergence of “ecofeminism” as a central theme in her work. Although I have not written as a theological ecofeminist (for good reasons, I think), I have always consciously tried to ask the questions raised by thinkers like Ruether and, later, Sallie McFague, in order to be as sure as possible that I was “for them,” however implicitly, rather than “against them.” Likewise for other theologies of liberation, which I read avidly in those years, above all the works of James Cone.
Such interests — the Confessing Church, the theology of liberation — have stayed with me ever since. They came to their most visible expression for me some years later, first, in an essay, “The Liberation of Nature: Lynn White’s Challenge Anew” (Christian Century, 102:18 [May 22, 1985], pp.530-533), in which I argued that the liberation of nature goes hand in hand with other forms of liberation, then in my theological memoir, South African Testament: From Personal Encounter to Theological Challenge (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), a book based on a firsthand engagement with the South African church and with the apartheid system at the height of its power.
It was while I was at Wellesley that I produced my first book, Brother Earth: Nature, God, and Ecology in a Time of Crisis (New York: Thomas Nelson, 1970). This was later called a “neo-Reformation” work by Claude Y. Stewart, Jr. in his book, Nature in Grace: a Study in the Theology of Nature (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1983) in which he compared my modest efforts with those of two theological giants, John Cobb and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. I was happy to be so characterized, since the two theologians whose works most shaped the argument of Brother Earth were Luther and Calvin. Over against what I then called the “exclusive the-anthropology” of Barth, whereby the main objects of theological reflection were God and humanity, I proposed that both Luther and Calvin, notwithstanding their own commitments to a certain kind of anthropocentrism, in fact thought in terms of an “inclusive the-anthropology.” Their theological framework was tripolar, not dipolar. They consistently thought in terms of God, humanity, and nature. More particularly, I explored Calvin’s rich theology of Divine providence in nature and Luther’s profound conceptualization of God as “in, with, and under” the world of nature. (Luther once observed that there are greater miracles in a grain of wheat than there are in the Sacrament of the altar.)
I also sought to undergird my argument, necessarily so, given my commitment to a Word of God theology, by developing my own biblical interpretation throughout Brother Earth. I was encouraged in these efforts by Stendahl’s non-anthropocentric reading of Paul, particularly by Stendahl’s accent on the world-historical, even cosmic, meanings of Paul’s treatment of the controversies over Jews and Gentiles in the early church. I continued the practice of doing much of my own biblical exegesis for many years, with fear and trembling. But I had no other choice, since most biblical scholars, until relatively recently, either were not interested in the theology of nature or they uncritically assumed that the Scriptures are fundamentally anthropocentric.
Brother Earth also employed a kind of correlative method, undoubtedly a sign of Tillich’s influence on my understanding of the task of theology. Following the historian Perry Miller (I audited two of his courses as an undergraduate), I diagnosed a schizophrenia in American culture between nature and civilization. In America, I suggested, the ancient dichotomy between the country and the city had become a kind of socio-political obsession. Thus American culture did indeed have a historic fascination with the wilderness, contrasted to the alleged impurities of the city, a theme articulated classically by Thoreau. But it also simultaneously championed “manifest destiny” and “progress” — witness Emerson’s celebration of the railroad — and as a result, typically showed little regard for wilderness values. Christian faith offers an answer to that schizophrenia, the split between nature and civilization, I argued. That answer, I maintained, is evident above all in the testimonies of biblical prophets like II Isaiah, but also in traditional Christian thinking about the Kingdom of God as the end (telos) of all things. Nature and civilization are kin, I maintained, insofar as both are rooted and shaped by God’s immanent providence and by the coming Kingdom of God.
Brother Earth had a number of liabilities, I now realize. The title itself was problematic. It rightly suggested kinship as the normative human relationship with nature; but I resisted then (for some good reasons, but mostly for bad reasons) thinking of nature metaphorically as female. I also all too easily affirmed a Kingdom of God theology, blithely unaware of the then emerging feminist critique of such symbols. And, not unrelated, I was unaware that my theology of human dominion, at points, did not sufficiently guard against the inroads of the modern Protestant/Capitalist/Marxist understanding of dominion as domination. Still, I think that that book did make at least two significant contributions to the then growing discussion of the theology of nature.
First, I insisted on the theme that God has a history of God’s own with the vast world of nature, apart from nature’s meaning for humans (by 1970 I was regularly talking about “the integrity of nature”). Second, I drew on the argument of one of my first published articles, “I-Thou, I-It, and I Ens”(Journal of Religion 67:3 [July, 1968] pp. 260-273), which was a conversation with Martin Buber, to identify a human relationship with nature and with God in nature that did not turn nature into an “It.” Analogous to an I-Thou relationship, I maintained, an I-Ens relationship with a tree (Buber’s example), was not objectifying, but neither was it strictly personal (humans do not converse with trees). More particularly, I envisioned the human-nature relationship in terms of wonder and respectful reciprocity. All this I set forth, as a good American neo-Reformation thinker, in conversation with Luther and Calvin — and Muir. I am grateful that, beginning with Mary Daly’s first edition of Beyond God the Father, that conceptuality of an I-Ens relation has found a place in numerous works by ecological thinkers and even in the works of some theologians.
Brother Earth also left me with an unfinished theological agenda. The keystone of the argument of the book was its christological center. But my description of that center was underdeveloped. Perhaps that was because I had yet to come to terms, in one way or another, with Barth’s famous “christological concentration,” which was much under discussion in theological circles in those days. Be that as it may, I began to think about such matters more and more in ensuing years, particularly as I came under the influence of Joseph Sittler during the nineteen-seventies. I had of course read Sittler’s famous 1961 address to the World Council of Churches in New Delhi, where Sittler called for a new “cosmic christology,” but in those days I was preoccupied with other things like walking picket lines. That lack of attention to christology changed as I developed a personal relationship with Sittler, during the time when we were the theologians selected to help write the 1973 statement and theological study guide on the environment for the Lutheran Church in America. He graciously befriended me and publicly affirmed my work. In turn, I sat at his feet and particularly benefitted from reading his Essays in Nature and Grace (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972). The theme of developing a cosmic christology has preoccupied me and challenged me to this very day (see my essay, “So That He Might Fill All Things: Comprehending the Cosmic Love of Christ,” dialog 42:3 [Fall 2003], pp. 357-278). I will refer to some of my most recent discussions presently.
But, in the late seventies, I bracketed such constructive challenges, in favor of a historical task: revisiting the classical Christian theological tradition from the perspective of ecological theology. Ironically, perhaps, I only became aware of what James Nash has called “the ecological complaint against Christianity” relatively late in the day. My interests in the theology of nature had been well-established by the time I first read the now ubiquitously cited 1967 article, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” by the historian, Lynn White, Jr., to which I have already referred. In that article, White charged that historic Christianity must bear a “huge burden of guilt” for the environmental crisis. That enormously popular expression of the ecological complaint against Christianity, along with my growing awareness of the severity of the environmental crisis itself, gave me a new sense of urgency about the theological path on which I had embarked. As a matter of course, then, I referred to the White thesis in the Preface to Brother Earth and I offered that book, in part, as an answer to White’s contention that Christianity (except for St. Francis) has always been ecologically bankrupt.
During the seventies, White’s argument had become the mantra of many academic critics of Christianity and even of some theologians, among them Christian feminists and advocates of native American spirituality. Of particular importance to me, Gordon Kaufman, who had supervised my dissertation on Barth and who, as he told me a few years before he died, began to shift his own thought about the theology of nature in response to my study of Barth, publicly launched what was for him a new theological program in 1972. Kaufman came to believe, for his own systematic reasons, that, in effect, Lynn White was right, that historic Christianity was bankrupt ecologically and that it therefore must be totally reconstructed. All the more so, I encountered that kind of judgment on many college campuses and, surprisingly, in some church circles, particularly in outdoor ministries of the church. I myself had been working all along with a quite different reading of the classical Christian tradition, so, in my available scholarly time, I began to devote myself to developing a fresh interpretation of classical Christian thought about nature. It was a long gestation period. There was much work to be done.
The eventual result was my study, The Travail of Nature: the Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1985), thankfully endorsed by a variety of scholars, including John Cobb, Langdon Gilkey, and, mirabile dictu, by Lynn White himself. I originally intended that book to be a shot across the bow, as it were, a kind of public theological announcement that indeed there are hidden ecological riches in classical Christian thought, notwithstanding a whole range of sometimes profound ambiguities regarding the theology of nature. I approached the subject archeologically, as I said in the book itself, only sinking down a few trenches into the tradition, so to speak, to see what I might find as a way to encourage others to begin to excavate the whole site. I singled out the following theologians for special attention: Irenaeus and Origen; the young and the mature Augustine; Thomas, Bonaventure, and Francis; Luther and Calvin; Barth and Teilhard de Chardin. Invoking a method of metaphorical analysis, I identified two major Christian ways of thinking about nature throughout the ages, the one ecological, the other spiritualizing and anthropocentric.
Soberingly, the wave of historical studies of classical Christian thought about nature that I had hoped would emerge in the wake of The Travail of Nature never did appear. Except for a few exceptions, historic Christian thinking about nature remains a largely uncharted territory. I have a number of ideas about why this has been the case, but I am still pondering the matter. This is not to suggest that Christians today are not interested in the theology of nature. On the contrary, the church at all levels, ecumenical, denominational, synodical, and congregational is intensely engaged with ecological and related justice issues, drawing on whatever theological resources it can muster. And the ecumenical church today does have access to a number of highly reliable ecological guides, in this respect, from little known forerunners like Joseph Sittler to highly regarded systematicians like Juergen Moltmann. That much of this is happening, however, without benefit of substantive access to the church’s classical traditions gives me pause.
Thankfully, there has been a kind of ecological revolution in biblical studies in recent years, particularly in Old Testament theology. But even if our churches today, inspired by guides like Sittler and Moltmann, do find a way to claim that theological revolution in biblical studies as their own, that would be a practice fraught with difficulties.
It would surely be foolhardy to try to leap from the current situation of a world in crisis and a church seeking to minister to that world in order to land in the midst of biblical theology and then to return, without having engaged the classical tradition that so deeply continues to shape the life and thought of the church, for better or for worse. I can understand why Elizabeth A. Johnson has forthrightly called such neglect of historic traditions by the ecumenical church today irresponsible.
Notwithstanding such difficulties, and grateful for the continuing use of The Travail of Nature in a variety of church circles, especially among Catholics, I have persevered, theologically. I find that some of my best theological work happens when I am “on the circuit,” as I continue to be, well into my retirement. Should anyone wish to see a snapshot of what I say to audiences in seminary, college, synodical, and congregational settings, I invite him or her to turn to my volume Nature Reborn: The Ecological and Cosmic Promise of Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000). This little book can serve as an introduction to ecological theology in our time. I describe what I think are the theological options today, the way of the reconstructionists (Christianity is ecologically bankrupt, let us begin anew), the apologists (Christianity has all it needs in its doctrine of stewardship of creation, let us interpret it), and the revisionists, in whose ranks I number myself (Christianity has an ambiguous ecological history, let us reclaim its ecological riches wherever we can).
Pursuant to my own revisionist agenda, I take issue with those who uncritically accept the ecological complaint against Christianity (with particular reference to Matthew Fox). I call attention to neglected ecological themes in biblical theology while at the same time I argue that some major expressions of Christian theology, however relevant they might seem in this era of global crisis, are ecologically suspect (citing the exemplary case of Teilhard de Chardin). I conclude with brief discussions of the ecological dimensions of Christian ritual, spirituality, and ethics.
Nature Reborn is thus a kind of comprehensive statement of my standard “stump speech,” as I travel around the country, addressing a variety of groups. A question I often hear at the end of such addresses is this: how come we never hear things like this from the pulpit? That question could come from a college professor, as well as from a professional environmentalist, who happen to be worshipers at St. John’s Around the Corner. I suspect that the professor and the environmentalist may have heard it in their home parish, but that they might not have been prepared to take it to heart, then and there. As a pastoral practitioner for many years, I am well aware of the difficulties preaching what one believes in this respect, not to speak of practicing what one preaches.
The homiletical challenges at the front lines of the church’s mission in America today are enormous, from issues of making sense out of the Gospel in our era “after the death of God” to coming to terms with the nihilism that dwells in the souls of many Americans in our times. Is war the only way? Does peace really have a chance? Is there any hope for a genuinely Christian family life? Why are so many young African-American men in prison? Why are so many of our children being shot on the streets of our cities? Are we going to succumb to the ravages of global warming? How can we begin to see, never mind respond to, the suffering of the invisible and impoverished masses around the globe today? How can we genuinely lead lives of “voluntary simplicity” and also public witness? What are we to make of the coming cosmic death of the whole universe? And by the way, Pastor, why aren’t you preaching so as to fill all the pews so that we can pay all the bills and also do all manner of other good things?
We preachers therefore need all the help we can get (this is why the volume edited by David Rhoads, Earth & Word: Classic Sermons on Saving the Planet [New York: Continuum, 2007], to which I contributed one of the 36 sermons collected there, is so important for the whole ecumenical church). It’s not easy to preach from the church’s lectionary and, at the same time, to address both the themes of ecology and justice effectively. The sermons may be biblical, incisive, and well-delivered, but the congregations’ readiness to hear and then respond may not be sufficient, given everything else that is on their minds. The “anguish of preaching” that Joseph Sittler talked about in 1966 is still with us, perhaps more so than four decades ago.
In the last few years, therefore, I have come to this conclusion, with ever-firmer conviction: that the theology of the kind that comes to expression in Nature Reborn, in my speeches on the stump, and in my preaching, while good and true and beautiful, I believe, is not enough. Lutherans like myself have invested enormously in the theology of the Word, following Luther himself (Luther once referred to the church as a “mouth house”). But something, at least in our time, has been missing. Which brings me to consider what I now think is the culminating stage of my theological autobiography, two books: Ritualizing Nature: Renewing Christian Liturgy in a Time of Crisis (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008) and Before Nature: A Christian Spirituality (Minneapolis: Fortress Perss, 2014). I did have chapters on ritual and spirituality in Nature Reborn, but these new books represent a much longer submersion in those deep waters. I will consider each book, in turn.
Throughout the forty years of my vocational trajectory, I have, as I have already indicated, always thought things through as a practitioner, not just as an author, nor just as a kind of peripatetic theological stump speaker. If, indeed, I were to call forth one image of my vocational trajectory, before all others, I would see myself preaching and officiating at the Eucharist. The liturgy of the church, and my calling to preside over that liturgy, has always been at the heart of my vocational life.
It began with a very good grounding, as I have already noted, as a protege of Henry Horn in Cambridge. At Wellesley College, I struggled to make available the deep claims of the liturgy, in the midst of a sixties and late seventies culture that made it easy for faculty and students to assume that inherited forms of worship were either irrelevant or counterrevolutionary. During my thirteen years as an inner-city pastor in the then fourth poorest city in the country, Hartford, Connecticut, I did preside over the transformation of a congregation from a white German-ethnic community to a racially mixed neighborhood church and I did become the “Godfather” of an Alinsky-style neighborhood organization. But I invested still more energy encouraging that congregation to be claimed by the historic liturgy of the church. Likewise for my ministry for seven years in a large, historic downtown church in Akron, Ohio, once pastored by the eminent Franklin Clark Fry (whose countenance was later to appear on the cover of Time magazine, under the rubric “Mr. Protestant”). Housed in a beautiful and spacious gothic building, blessed with one of the great pipe organs in the country, and proud of its venerable Lutheran heritage, that congregation, or at least its leaders at that time, knew what their worship should be. Call this the gothic dream of middle American Protestantism — a beautiful dream, but, in my view, much too vulnerable to the forces of acculturalization, much too predisposed to foster a church that was what Churchill said of the Anglican church of his day, “the Tory party at prayer.” It was a struggle, therefore, to introduce that congregation to some of the major reforms that emerged from the Movement for Liturgical Renewal a half-century before, not to speak of themes from liberation theology. But I relished that struggle.
Some things, I suppose, never change. I began my life in the church as a sacramental Lutheran and I am now concluding it as a sacramental Lutheran, although hopefully of a higher order. My ministry, both as a practitioner and a theologian, has always been shaped — insofar as it has been given me so to do — by Luther’s understanding of the real presence of Jesus Christ in Word and Sacrament and in the people of Christ ministering to each other and to the world, for the sake of “the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.” This is why I think that my book Ritualizing Nature represents one culmination of my whole vocational trajectory.
It is very much an experimental work. It begins correlatively, in Tillichian fashion, probing questions that readers are actually thinking about, such as: why would anyone in today’s postmodern world even want to be interested in exploring the claims of the liturgy? It then seeks to bind together the insights of liturgical studies, on the one hand, and the theology of ecology and justice, on the other. Hence I was grateful and also encouraged when a leading liturgical scholar, Gordon Lathrop, and an eminent theologian of ecology and justice, Larry Rasmussen, both agreed to endorse the book.
What does “ritualizing nature” mean? Consider this premise, that liturgy is the church’s mode of identity-formation. Not theology, as such. Not merely preaching, which is theology as personal address (the viva vox evangelii). No, the church’s ritual, its liturgy, makes all the difference. Such a premise reflects a wide range of cultural studies, which show that ritual, more generally, is the human mode of identity-formation. Eric Erikson, for example, argued that without rituals, the human infant would not develop what Erikson called basic trust and therefore would not be able to grow into psychological maturity. An example: morning after morning, a parent comes into a child’s room and smiles at the child. This ritual inculcates basic trust. Analogously, for Christian ritual: when Christians “do this,” as the Lord commanded, when they break bread and drink wine together, they are practicing, embodying, becoming habituated to, the self-giving love of Christ, who “on the night in which he was betrayed” said, “do this in remembrance of me.” Christian ritual thereby forms Christian character, which, in turn, shapes Christian action in the world.
But what if Christian ritual happens to be highly spiritualized, encouraging participants to rise above the world of material things in order to commune with God in heaven? Will not the result be habits of disinterest in nature, perhaps even habits of domination of nature? What if Christian preaching in the context of such a ritual is driven by a theology of self-esteem or even by the quest for the forgiveness of sins alone? Will not the result of such liturgical preaching tend to be a powerful focus on the individual believer and on his or her needs? What about a Sunday ritual that is predicated on leading Christians into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ (this is not only an American-evangelical theme; notably, it also flows from the heart of the Lutheran tradition, as the music of Bach often shows)? Will those believers then be inclined only to contemplate Jesus Christ as their personal savior? Must not liturgical preaching, indeed, be driven by a vision of the whole economy of God, from the mysteries of creation to the ineffable consummation of all things, with Jesus Christ proclaimed as the redeemer and savior of all things, by making peace by the blood of his Cross, according to the imaginative immenseness of the faith that comes to expression in Colossians 1:15ff.?
But preaching cannot be our only concern, in this respect, or even our main concern. In Ritualizing Nature, I argue that the whole liturgy must be right, if the church’s ecological and justice praxis is to be right. Practice will not make perfect. But practice — if it is good practice — will in all likelihood make possible. Consider the shape of the Eucharistic Prayer as a case in point. The tradition on the side of the Reformation churches has been to minimize the use of a full eucharistic prayer, for fear of introducing themes of sacrifice that contradict the Gospel of the free grace of God. The tradition on the side of the Counter-Reformation church has also been to minimize the use of a full eucharistic prayer, in favor of the “words of institution,” spoken silently, as the consecrating moment of the Eucharist. The theology of penance, inherited from the late Middle Ages — and with that theology, the emphasis on the forgiveness of sins — has thus shaped both the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation traditions.
This has meant that a transaction addressing the individual believer’s interiority has moved to the center of the liturgical experience: it is all “for me” (pro me). Consider, in contrast, how the post-Vatican II reemphasis on the full eucharistic prayer, in both Protestant and Catholic circles, has broadened eucharistic horizons of meaning. Now the ecumenical church gives thanks for the fullness of God’s creative and redemptive activity, from the alpha to the omega of creation-history, with the individual believer receiving grace within that universal setting. Call this the cosmic Mass (Teilhard de Chardin) of the ecumenical church. In that context, we are shaped by what is done and that “what” is nothing less than what is being done by God in, with, and under the whole creation and in, with, and under the ritual life of the Church, in particular. The Reformation/Counter-Reformation liturgy thus tends to shape Christians mainly for their solitary spiritual struggles, while the Post-Vatican II liturgy tends to shape them also for their communal involvement in God’s wondrous and sometimes alienating works with the whole creation, as well as in God’s marvelous and miraculous works within the church as a ritual community.
In this way, Ritualizing Nature brings together for me, one more time, and for me in a most gratifying and self-conscious fashion, those two themes that have preoccupied me most throughout the course of my theological trajectory, ecology and justice, each one and both together driven by the promise of the Gospel, announced and formed in the church’s ritual practices. As a liturgical practitioner for more than four decades, I now realize that I have been seeking to discover and embody this kind of unified theological vision my whole vocational life, in my preaching, my teaching, my writing, my counseling, my officiating, and my public witness.
Before I turn now to reflect about the second of my most recent books, and then conclude my discussion, I want to call attention to some Lutheran homework, as it were, that has preoccupied me in recent years. Yes, my theological roots have been richly nourished by a wide variety of ecumenical witnesses. The theology of Vatican II has found a place in my heart, particularly its liturgical expressions, even if I didn’t find occasions to write about it. I have written about a variety of other Catholic witnesses, such as the mature Augustine, St. Francies, the Celtic saints, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and I have been instructed by all of them. I have likewise listened carefully to voices from the traditions of the Methodists, thinkers such as John Cobb and James Nash. The Reformed tradition has been a major influence in my thinking, from Calvin himself to Karl Barth and then Juergen Moltmann. Moreover, the witness of what some used to think of as the twentieth century particularists or, better, the liberationists, has been very much part of my theological world, as well, especially that great champion of Black Theology, James Cone, and the early representatives of what has now become a full-fledged theological movement, ecofeminism: Mary Daly, Rosemarie Radford Ruether, Sallie McFague, and, most recently, Elizabeth Johnson.
But I was born a Lutheran and, for better or for worse, I have remained one. As I hope will be apparent by now, this has been a struggle for me, especially in the wake of the Lutheran tradition’s scandalous response to the phenomenon of National Socialism in Germany. I have also found the Lutheran tradition – not Luther himself – wanting insofar as it has not until very recently offered theological resources to help the church respond to our global ecojustice crisis and to the challenges posed by the natural sciences in our time, especially by evolutionary biology and cosmological physics.
With respect to the latter, I have recently made an intense effort to show how Luther himself was, as it were, an ecological theologian before his time and how a number of late twentieth century Lutheran theologians in the U.S. made substantive – if not always widely recognized — contributions to ecological theology. In so doing, I have also tried to identify two ways of contemporary Lutheran thinking, one of which is ecological in scope, the other of which is not. As a matter of course, I have understood myself as a champion of that first way of thinking, which I have called Lutheran theological maximalism.
Although I wrote about Luther’s theology of nature in The Travail of Nature and elsewhere, I only turned my full attention to that task publicly in an article published internationally in 2012 (“Creation and Salvation according to Martin Luther: Creation as the Good and Integral Background,” Creation and Salvation, I: A Mosaic of Selected Classic Christian Theologies, ed. Ernst M. Conradie [Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2012], 173-202). There I showed how Luther has a rich theology of nature, even though his primary theological interest was always human salvation, particularly the theme of justification by faith alone. I drew on the same body of research about Luther’s thought in an essay on “cosmic Christology,” originally a lecture at the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, Berkeley, CA (“Toward a Cosmic Christology: A Kerygmatic Proposal,” Theology and Science 9:3 [August 2011], 287-306). I argued that Luther’s paradoxical theology of Divine immanence, joined with his closely related theology of the ubiquity of the risen Christ, offers us a suggestive way to think about the cosmic lordship of Jesus Christ, a theme that had preoccupied me for many years, at least since the time of my first encounters with the theology of Joseph Sittler.
In my keynote lecture to the Association of Lutheran Teaching Theologians in 2012, I tried to identify both the considerable strengths of the Lutheran theological inheritance, as far as ecological theology is concerned, as well as some of that inheritance’s ecological liabilities (“American Lutherans Engage Ecological Theology: The First Chapter, 1962-2012, and Its Legacy,” in Eco-Lutheranism: Lutheran Perspectives on Ecology, ed. Karla G. Bohmbach and Shauna K. Hannan [Minneapolis: Lutheran University Press, 2013], 17-54). I took note of what I called a strong theological side-stream in American Lutheran theology during the previous fifty years, focusing on the contributions of Joseph Sittler and Larry Rasmussen. That vigorous side-stream, I observed, was also carried along by Philip Hefner (theological anthropology), Ted Peters (systematic theology), Terrence Fretheim (biblical studies), Gordon Lathrop (liturgical theology), and myself (historical studies), among others. All of these theologians, I argued, presupposed a theological paradigm shift from theo-anthropocentrism (Barth) to theo-cosmocentrism. According to this way of thinking, the most fundamental vision is of God and the whole creation, in which humanity has its home, not God and humanity alone, with the rest of the creation viewed as a kind of stage for God’s history with humanity.
Behind that paradigm shift in Lutheran thinking, I further argued, was a fundamental commitment to what I called Lutheran theological maximalism, in contrast to Lutheran theological minimalism. According to the latter, the chief Lutheran doctrines are justification, law and gospel, the theology of the Cross, and a polemic against any “theology of glory.” Lutheran maximalists, in turn, affirm those fundamentals of historic Lutheran theology, but also and perhaps all the more so concern themselves with more comprehensive theological themes such as the doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine of creation. and the doctrine of the Divine immanence in nature.
I concluded that lecture by coming full-circle to the contemporary situation globally, which I perceive as being fraught with many dangers, as far as ecojustice issues are concerned. I affirmed, indeed, that the burden of proof is on the shoulders of any Lutheran who does not believe that our churches are now in a time of status confessionis, when we must envision radical actions on our part, as Luther envisioned and took radical steps in his own time.
Such was my Lutheran homework in the past few years. Beyond my ecumenical concerns, I have always taken my own theological tradition seriously and have always wanted to take responsibility for it, as best as I could. There is doubtless much more to be said about Lutheran theology from the perspective of ecological theology, especially about Lutheran social ethics, positively and negatively, but I think that at this point in my own theological trajectory I have said everything that I can say, and I leave it to others in the next theological generation to take up these issues and to wrestle with them.
This brings me to what will surely be my last major theological contribution, I believe, since I am well into my seventies. This is a very practical narrative, my book Before Nature: A Christian Spirituality (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014). I have here eagerly entered into an arena where angels fear to tread. Everybody these days, it seems, is interested in spirituality. Why not me? The book is written for two audiences, first the increasingly large body of spiritual seekers, both outside and within our churches, who say they are more interested in spirituality than religion, second those numerous theologians and pastoral practitioners who are eager to be in conversation with those seekers. The title has two meanings. I stand before nature, as I have my whole life, engaged with its beauties, its immensities, and its terrors, and I contemplate nature charged with the glories of God. My faith in God, however, has always been grounded in the life of the church, before that kind of encounter with nature. Indeed, my faith begins with my Baptism and what I call my baptismal mysticism. Hence the centrality of the Trinity in my spirituality of nature: “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
Before Nature is a kind of meditation on the Trinity in, with, and under the whole cosmos. This approach, of course, is culturally problematic in these times, given the well-recognized liabilities of patriarchal thought and practice. But I make every effort to avoid patriarchal readings of the mystery of the Trinity. For me, God is Giver, Gift, and Giving; and the Father, in particular, I envision, with Moltmann, as the “motherly Father” who suffers in the Son and with the Son, as the Crucified God. Presupposing such understandings, I invite readers to practice what I call the Trinity Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. Praise Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Come Holy Spirit, come and reign.” And I explore the cosmic ministries of the “two hands of the Father,” the Son and the Spirit.
I do all this by taking the readers with me to several particular places, where my spirituality is grounded, among them: scything and gardening in a rural Maine setting, walking along the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts and sauntering through the rich milieu of a great arboretum in the same city, entering into liturgical perambulations in a Cambridge monastery and an inner-city Boston parish, experiencing work in a steel plant outside Buffalo, New York, and contemplating the wonders of the great Niagara River and its Falls. All the time, I seek to “pray without ceasing,” invoking the Trinity Prayer subliminally, if not vocally, whenever and wherever possible.
Before Nature incorporates testimony to all the dimensions of God’s good creation that have so captivated me for so long, the church’s liturgical practices and my own practices of prayer, the city and the countryside, the stands of surviving wilderness areas on this good Earth and the virtually infinite reaches of the cosmos beyond, all shaped, I believe, by the ministry of the Cosmic Christ and all driven by the energies of Cosmic Spirit.
In this sense, Before Nature, is my final testimony to the God of my Baptism and to my apperception of nature as God’s world. Where do I go from here? Now in my seventh decade, my remaining years on this Earth are few. I can only hope that all these vocational labors will not have been in vain, that there might be others in the church who now stand ready to benefit at least from some of them.
I hope, too, that the reader will understand that I am well aware — soulfully aware — that the theological trajectory I have narrated here by no means tells the whole story. It says nothing explicitly about my personal failures or losses, my times of vocational inertia or my spiritual sloth – parts of this story I tell in Before Nature. Nor does this theological autobiography disclose the dynamics of my care of souls over the years or how I tried, in many modest ways behind the scenes, to be a prophetic pastoral leader as well as an imaginative and forceful priestly officiant. Nor, again, does it tell how grateful I am each morning when I see the daylight, smile at my wife of almost fifty years, contemplate photos of my children and grandchildren, and begin to think about mundane things like gardening, taking a walk, or watching the Boston Celtics on TV. Neither does it tell about the ecstatic joy and the centering peace that I experience on any given Sunday morning, as I stand with the members of the inner-city congregation to which I now belong and sing my heart out. But that is another story for another time, perhaps.
* These reflections (4/20/14) are an expanded version of the essay I published in Theologians in Their Own Words, ed. Derek R. Nelson, Joshua M. Moritz, and Ted Peters (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), chap. 18.