For me, April 22, 2020 was not just the celebration of the first Earth Day fifty years ago, it also was a more parochial time to begin some ruminating. I published my first book in ecological theology the same year as the first Earth Day – Brother Earth: Nature, God, and Ecology in a Time of Crisis (New York: Thomas Nelson, 1970). Fifty years ago! In those days, mine was one of a very few voices addressing ecological issues theologically.
I had to struggle even to come up with a title for the book. My first impulse had been to think in terms of “Mother Earth.” But in those days many Christians – who were then as now my target audience – were highly suspicious of anything that sounded like “paganism” or “nature religion.” Those were the days, too, when numerous American Christian thinkers were, following the great Karl Barth, zealously opposed any theology of “natural revelation.” On the other hand, American Christians – especially American Protestants! – had never wavered in their adulation for the great Catholic saint, Francis of Assisi. And, privately and zealously, if not publicly, I wanted to claim Francis as my own patron saint, as I was seeking to identify a new kind of Christian love for nature. So Brother Earth is was.
To be sure, I would later come to publicly express some regret for that choice. The year 1970 also marked, for me, the beginning of a new kind of vocational adventure. I had just begun my ministry as Wellesley College’s first Chaplain. Back then, not only was that a women’s college, women ran the place! It was a women’s world. I soon realized that if I were to survive, never mind thrive, in that world as a male ecological theologian, I would have to become a champion of a new form of Christian theology that was emerging in those days, ecofeminism. So I invited Mary Daly, author of the then notorious Beyond God the Father, to speak in the College Chapel. She would be the first of countless other feminist preachers, whom I would bring to Wellesley. And, in due course, I began to teach a course in ecological theology at the College, highlighting the works of ecofeminist thinkers like Daly and Rosemary Radford Ruether. In retrospect – so I came to believe in ensuing years – I could well have entitled my first book Mother Earth or even Sister Earth. But publishing, like politics, has always been the art of the possible. Given the patriarchal propensities of American church life in the nineteen-seventies, I probably had done very well, indeed, with the title Brother Earth. At least it had been a step in the right direction.
Be that as it may, since the publication of Brother Earth in 1970, in addition to many other things both personal and professional, I devoted myself to ecological theology and ecojustice activism with what some might think of as a fixation. It has surely been a lifelong passion, predicated on an increasingly urgent anxiety. Not for nothing did the word “crisis” appear in the title of many of my books.
On April 22, 2020, as I now reflect about the last fifty years, I am sheltering in place, a good thing for an octogenarian like me to do in this era of the corona pandemic. In my view, this enormous scourge may well be just the first wave of a number of global disasters that may be about to afflict God’s good earth in the years and decades to come, especially the poor. What will the next fifty years be like for humankind on this planet? I have hope, theologically, but I am not optimistic, existentially. Still, I stand, as ever, with Martin Luther, who, when he was once was asked what he would do if the world were about to come to an end, offered these, by now oft-quoted, words, “I would plant an apple tree.”
Which I take to mean: whatever else all of us may be called upon to do in this era of global crisis – who knows what horrific challenges may await humans during the next fifty years – we all should do the good that each of us has been called upon to do, without ceasing. For me, much of my time over the last fifty years has been given to cultivating the field of ecological and ecojustice theology. In retrospect, I can see that much if not all of those labors were parochial – and still are. I’ve acted and written self-consciously and publicly as a card-carrying Christian and as a Lutheran Christian in particular, who has aspired to be a public, ecumenical theologian.
My major studies are listed elsewhere on this website. Many of them are relatively well-known and at least a couple of them, such as my historical study of Christian attitudes to nature, The Travail of Nature: The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1985), are well-regarded. Lesser known, but to me perhaps my most important theological work, have been my efforts to influence the thought and practice of my own particular Christian communion, American Lutheranism. I have long claimed the sentiments that I was taught by a community organizer in mid-life as a maxim, when I was pastoring a small congregation in inner-city Hartford, CT: grow where you are planted. That field, for me, has been the life and faith of the Lutheran tradition, understood as a reform movement within the Holy Catholic Church.
Thus I had a hand in shaping major statements on the environment by the Lutheran Church in America (1972) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (1993) and I continue to serve as a consultant for the struggling, but visionary grassroots movement, Lutherans Restoring Creation (see lutheransrestoringcreation.org). My most recent book, written in the wake of Pope Francis’ amazing encyclical, Laudato si’, invites readers to take one step backward, in order to take two steps forward. That one step backward is a review of some of the comprehensive contributions of American Lutherans to ecological theology and ecoethics over the past fifty years – Celebrating Nature by Faith: Studies in Reformation Theology in an Era of Global Emergency (Eugene, OR: Cascade, forthcoming).
I wrote Brother Earth, fifty years ago, in part to respond to the then increasingly popular 1966 claim of the historian Lynn White, Jr. that Christianity as a faith tradition had been, for the most part, ecologically bankrupt (!). I then argued, in many other writings as well, especially in my 1985 historical study, The Travail of Nature, that White’s thesis was an important half-truth. Yes, we must be well-aware of how Christianity has been complicit over the centuries in cultural trends that have led to the abuse and the degradation of nature and the poor of the earth. But that’s not the whole story, by any means. Historic Christianity has also championed a second – ecological! – tradition. Hence my chief vocation as a one who has aspired to be a public theologian of the Holy Catholic Church: to identify, to reformulate, and then to champion that rich ecological tradition of Christian life and thought, most recently highlighting the ecological witness of American Lutheran theologians and practitioners during the decades since 1970.
As of April 22, 2020, then, as I shelter at home, I am grateful that I have been given my longstanding vocation to serve as an ecological theologian rooted in Lutheran traditions, among a now global ecumenical community of theologians and practitioners, led by His Holiness, Pope Francis, all of whom are committed to the life and the mission of the Holy Catholic Church and, in particular, to its ecological and ecojustice witness in this, our apocalyptic era.
The construct ecological spirituality and terms like that have by now become familiar to many, Christians and others, who are seeking to respond to our global ecojustice crisis from religious perspectives. i Perhaps the most widely celebrated theological voice in this respect is Pope Francis’, who in his encyclical Laudato Si’ has championed the importance of an ecological spirituality for all, for Christians especially, in this era of global emergency, as the beautiful prayer with which he concludes that encyclical powerfully shows. ii
But how is such an ecological spirituality to be claimed more generally by members of our churches today? In recent years I have become more and more convinced that narratives of personal experience, fragmentary as they typically are, have a role to play in helping church members today to develop ecological spiritualities of their own, alongside of more discursive theological studies and confessional statements such as Laudato Si’. It is with that conviction in mind that I offer here a narrative of some fragments of an ecological spirituality in the form of musings on a recent journey of my own.
On a half-rainy day in January, 2020, exploring back roads near the coast in the Hilo area of the Big Island of Hawaii, my wife of more than fifty years, Laurel, and I came upon an almost invisible seaside park, accessible only by a steep drop of stairs. iii At the water’s edge, overlooking the waves crashing on the black volcanic rocks, was a single picnic table. Sitting there in the occasional sunshine, while holding our books and reading now and again, we kept lifting up our eyes to contemplate the magnificent waves of the Pacific splashing against the cliffs on either side of us.
That we both had books with us was no happenstance. We carry them with us the way many other travelers carry smartphones. We take our books with us on outings, like that coastal adventure. We sometimes take them out to dinner. We regularly take them on the subway with us, on the way to concerts. Except for exceptions, we usually take them to bed with us at night. Recent generations may not understand. But, more often than not, we find those books and our conversations about them, day or night, charged with insightful, sometimes moving discoveries. Laurel reads mostly detective novels and I mainly read, mirabile dictu, theology books.
On occasion, I’ll read novels, such as the one I had in hand at that little coastal park, Richard Powers’ The Overstory. iv That long and complex, but illuminating and deeply troubling book claimed all my reading energies during our ten-day Big Island vacation. I was fascinated, but by no means surprised, by Powers’ passion for trees, in particular. I quickly decided that I had found a spiritual soulmate. Just a couple of months before Laurel and I had departed for Hawaii, as a matter of fact, I had received word that my short essay, “Treehood: A Memoir,” had been accepted for publication. v It’s the story of a lifelong love affair with trees.
Powers’ novel also brought back memories of my own environmental activism during the last fifty years – not nearly so radical, for sure, as the protests of a number of his well-etched characters. On the other hand, if you consider theology as radical, in the sense that it is a discourse that seeks to unearth the Divine roots (radix) of critical cosmic and historic meanings, I’ve been a radical since the late nineteen sixties, committed at every step along the way to encourage our churches to get ecologically re-rooted.vi I suppose that working on other public causes over the years, like, most recently, joining a campaign to pressure my own college to divest from fossil fuels or digging deep to donate to ecojustice candidates might count for something, too, however modest. Likewise for lifestyle commitments, like eating low off the food chain or habitually reusing stuff.
Truth be known, though, as we began our drive around the Big Island, in odd moments I kept thinking much more about environmental guilt than environmental activism or green lifestyle practices. Was it a contradiction for the two of us, for example, to have contributed to the global climate crisis so blatantly by choosing to fly to Hawaii and back? Now I know that, when I entertain such questions, I can also invoke Luther, with some justification: sin boldly, trust the Lord, and rejoice (pecca fortiter sed fortius fide et gaude in Christo). But at some point along the way in Hawaii I just decided not to worry about the guilt, just to live with the contradictions, and then to keep throwing myself into our trip. Was that the wisdom or the folly of old age – or both?
So it happened that early on in our journey I found myself intensely preoccupied not by tourist guilt, but by what I came to think of, indeed, as the great overstory and by what that story meant for me and for Laurel and for our children and our grandchildren and indeed for all the creatures of the Earth, now and in generations to come. The trees! The trees! Especially their absence. As our trip unfolded – except for the eastern shore of the Big Island, where everything was to come to a conclusion for me – trees were often in evidence to us mainly because they were not to be seen.
That was due in large measure, it appeared to me, not to historic human use or abuse – although we met signs of that, too – but because of horrendous volcanic eruptions over the years that had buried vast swaths of green regions throughout much of the island with black lava. Add to that the consistently sparse rainfall in many areas of the Big Island, and no wonder that the place appeared to us at times to be much more black or brown than green.
But I am getting ahead of myself. While the great overstory constantly hovered in my mind, I found myself much more consciously engaged those days with trivialities, as the world counts such things. With the city of Hilo itself, for example. A former sugarcane outpost, Hilo seemed to me to still be very much a working class town. Much of its coastline was replete with warehouses and loading docks and corner stores, notwithstanding obvious efforts that had been made to spruce it up with parks and to add upscale hotels.
At Hilo, fittingly, Laurel and I stayed for a day at a small, cheap hotel. Nearby, at a restaurant that appeared to be frequented mainly by locals, we enjoyed unusually spiced drinks before dinner – the one flavored with hibiscus, the other with jalapeno. The restaurant itself was perched on posts, in anticipation of the next tsunami. But never mind that kind of calamity, probably those posts wouldn’t help much, I concluded, when the next lava flow from an erupting Mauna Loa began relentlessly to flow. Had I therefore in that restaurant stumbled on to an historic insight? Was that perhaps the story of this region of Hawaii, if not all the islands, I wondered, a delectably flavored human world that was constantly vulnerable to historic disasters? And was that somehow my world, too?
The following day we left Hilo and drove for several hours along the arid northwest coast of the Big Island, many outcroppings of which were gargantuan, some of which was an enormous sloping flatland blanketed with what were, for us, alien lava fields. Those regions appeared to us to be akin to the surface of the moon, but thoroughly black and much more jagged. They were almost totally devoid of trees, often devoid even of grasses, even though they were thousands of years old.
At Kalua-Kona on the western coast, which was greener, thanks to more frequent rainfall, we stayed at a small house, which we had all to ourselves, maybe ten yards from the thundering waves at high tide. One day we watched as a wiry young man emerged from the scarcely visible house adjacent to ours, hidden by trees. He easily balanced himself on protruding lava rocks some yards out into the turbulent waters. He carried what turned out to be a sizeable white net, which he repeatedly cast over the waves. We wondered what he was fishing for. Notwithstanding his graceful movements, he didn’t seem to catch anything. Was that a parable for our times? No, I didn’t want to read too much into that simple story. Sometimes fishing is – just fishing.
Another day, as we were reading on the back porch, overlooking the waves, we heard the sound of what seemed to be an extraordinary wave crashing on the dark lava shoreline wall below us. On second glance, we discovered the source of that strange noise. It was a massive humpback whale, maybe a quarter-mile offshore, surfacing and then crashing back into the waters. On cue, a remarkably smaller whale calf surfaced and crashed into the waters with much less resounding thunder. That wonderful duet then repeated itself three more times. I felt at that moment that something of the Divine mystery of creation had just been disclosed to me, reminiscent of Job’s much more comprehensive experiences at the edge of his wilderness.
At Kalu-Kona, we also preoccupied ourselves with snorkeling, which had been the chief raison d’etre for each of our four Hawaiian trips. The snorkeling has been Laurel’s passion mainly, but I – once upon a time a competitive swimmer – have eagerly paddled along with her in every instance and in every direction. The word snorkeling, I know, sounds odd, almost as odd as the sight of us, two senior citizens, must have appeared when we entered the waters at a public park, donned with gloves and masks with air pipes, carrying flippers, she holding my hand, me balance-challenged, carefully proceeding baby-step by baby-step, until we finally were able to lower ourselves slowly into the thigh-deep waves, put on our flippers, and then swim out to deeper regions.
It was of course all worth it, however comical it might have appeared at the outset. In those deeper waters, we slowly maneuvered effortlessly, it felt, uplifted in body and spirit by the temperate, clear water and thrilled by the sight of so many multicolored fish, we watching while they seemed casually to feed and then energetically to dart around the striking coral reefs maybe twelve feet below. It was as if we had been given a privileged glimpse of the fifth day of creation.
That was a powerful moment for me, quite unlike the “oceanic feeling” described by Sigmund Freud and by some mystics, the idea that such experiences drive you to lose yourself in the Divine, like a drop of water falling into a vast sea. On the contrary, I found myself in a fresh way at that moment, floating on the surface and contemplating those fish below: as one small creature among unimaginable numbers of other kinds, from the nearly infinite to the infinitesimal, each one beloved by God in its own way, myself included.
While at Kalua-Kona, too, we joined a contingent of other tourists for a day on a sizeable little ship, which took us all to a secluded bay several miles to the south, a national seaside protected area, where we snorkeled and contemplated the gorgeous fish there for a couple of timeless hours. After that, on board, all the passengers and the crew enjoyed a deliciously grilled repast together. Did that mundane voyage and that simple lunch offer a kind of spiritual communion with the God who is in, with, and under and above, beyond, and beneath both the worlds of human and cosmic history? For me, it did.
On another day at Kalua-Kona, we motored up winding roads to the top of a mountain precipice in order to find a funky cafe, where we had lunch at a window overlooking the whole coastline far below, bathed at that time in the sun and punctuated by the shadows of a few ominous rain clouds. What human hands had shaped those sloping mountainside fields, I wondered, and, more recently, what had it truly cost to develop the land closer to the ocean into sprawling residences for the rich and the powerful? And what other species might have lived on those slopes in times gone by? Was it possible, indeed, to hear the groaning of the whole creation in that developed setting?
After our stay at Kalua-Kona, we drove around the northern coast. We kept motoring higher and higher, with an ancient extinct volcano on one side and the vast shoreline extending from horizon to horizon below us. This was a region of immense grasslands, presumably cleared of trees – and of native peoples – at some time by colonizing human hands, for the sake of sugar cane production perhaps or to create flowing fields where cattle could graze. The vista at that point was overwhelming, some three-thousand feet high, as I recall.
We then descended along a narrowing and still more winding road two thousand feet or more to what appeared to be a small tourist town, Hawi, where we enjoyed an idiosyncratic Hawaiian lunch and, with all the other tourists, dutifully applauded two middle-aged native women who were doing what was billed as traditional dances. What might I have learned from that experience had I given it any serious spiritual attention?
Returning to Hilo, we took refuge in an elegant three-floor, shoreline mini-hotel, perched on posts, again, in view of the next tsunami. The best snorkeling we experienced on our trip was at a nearby sandy beach, thankfully not, like many of the others, full of sharp, lava rocks. The sun came out just in time for our first plunge into those nearly transparent waters. The fish there were extraordinary, some of them with colors which we had not seen before. It was their world and we felt privileged to have had glimpses of it.
The following day, huddled together, carrying our umbrella under a steady rain, we explored the dark shoreline in front of our inn, tiptoeing on the sometimes slippery volcanic stone flats at the edge of the ocean. At one point, we caught sight of a large sea-turtle, which soon disappeared from sight under the ledge of the rocky shoreline on which we were standing. Such turtles, Laurel later learned, can stay under water for as much as half an hour. On a previous Hawaian trip, to Kauai, while snorkeling, we had glided over several such turtles, none of which seemed to pay any attention to us. It was as if they had assumed that those regions were theirs, not ours.
From that seaside base in Hilo, the next day we drove 35 miles to Volcano National Park and explored its many contours and precipitous sites. Somehow the fog that often shrouded us that day seemed appropriate. Every dark volcanic basin seemed to be charged with mystery. At the end of the day, as we sat in an upscale restaurant at the upper reaches of the volcano, we looked out the large windows, which were to have shown us beautiful scenic vistas, and we saw heavy grey clouds everywhere.
At that moment we might well have pondered the ambiguities and the contradictions of human existence on planet Earth. By what right had we been expecting to be presented with a scenic view? Instead, we talked about the books we had been reading and we gossiped about our children and our grandchildren, along the way relishing more delicious local cuisine, of a kind we had never tasted before. During the meal, we had a fascinating conversation with our server, whose day job was caring for a half-dozen cattle. He complained about not being able to grow the vegetables he was eager to harvest, because many of them rotted in the heavy rain in that region. It was also a challenge, he said, to keep the cattle dry now and again, which he said he needed to do, for their own sakes. For sure, he was much more in tune with the meanings of that region than tourists like us.
Finally, while Laurel had her snorkeling moments to keep rejuvenating her spirits, the existential highpoint of the trip for me was our long, contemplative visit to the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden not too far from Hilo, where we had begun our journey. That day we had the park almost entirely to ourselves. It was full of an unimaginable number of small, large, and gargantuan plants, from variegated orchids and spider lilies to monkeypod and African tulip and banyan trees, topped off by immense palms. The park was bounded at its lower levels by the sea itself and the rolling and the churning of the incoming waves.
A thoroughly modern human creation (1984) – containing plants and vines and trees from middle-earth regions in many settings around the globe and doubtless also hundreds of indigenous animals that we never heard or saw, except for the songs of a few birds – this dramatically sloping almost forty-acre seaside garden, featuring as it did several cascading streams, was more than a park for me. Again: The trees! The trees! As I walked along the circuitous, well-designed paths, a few of them amazingly steep, and I looked up at the canopy high above, I called to mind some of the themes of Overstory. For, in this place – not without the investment of much human capital – the overstory ruled everything else.
But all the more so, inveterate student of Scriptures that I am, I thought of that place as the Garden of Eden. Laurel and I were Adam and Eve all over again, I imagined, fragile and dependent creatures who were almost totally hidden amidst those astoundingly huge leafy plants and colossal trees. Laurel picked up the theme of human minisculity in her own characteristic fashion, calling to mind for us the dozen or more of sizeable broad-leafed tropical plants that I have collected and I care for in our own living-room back in Massachusetts. She imagined herself at that moment in that fecund Hawaiian botanical garden, she said, as some kind of inch-high humanoid walking through an overwhelmingly green effervescence of gigantic houseplants.
For me, that exquisitely alive seaside temple of towering trees and intricately variegated flowers and mysterious vines and spaciously leafed undergrowth and crashing streams and constantly incoming ocean waves on the Big Island also brought forth feelings of sadness. What was the future of this Garden of Eden? Our trip happened to coincide with the weeks in 2020 when half of Australia, it seemed, was going up in flames.
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior… He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly….” (Luke 1:46, 32)
One of my favorite sayings comes from an improbable source, the Freudian philosophical critic of the 1960’s, Norman O. Brown: “Doing nothing is the supreme action.” This is the perfect thought for Christmas 2018 in the United States of America, I believe. Let me explain.
The irony of American history today is this. The swamp in Washington, D.C. must be drained: but it must be drained of the very people who gave that expression its currency. In a time of global climate crisis, we are now stalled in a national political quagmire that seems to be worsening every day, due to a know-nothing corruption of the American political mind. Item: to champion the use of more coal, as the powers that be are doing these days, is to champion the way of Death. How are people of faith to respond to this situation?
From a deeply rooted traditionalist Christian perspective, I say: reclaim the song of Mother Mary, the Magnificat, which celebrates the promise of the One who is to be the Christ Child: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior… He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly….” (Luke 1:46-47, 52)
I hear these words as mandating an important revision of three popular understandings of Christian discipleship, each of which still has a certain kind of validity: 1) the moral mission of the Church is to train individuals to go out into the world to be responsible citizens (this is what I was taught in my earliest years); 2) the moral mission of the Church is for its members to go out into the world as a change-agents (this is how I tended to think in the era of the sixties); 3) the moral mission of the Church is to be a community of “resident aliens,” who “keep faith alive,” especially through liturgical and spiritual practices, in a world that appears to be going to hell in every direction (this theme, championed by contemporary theologian Stanley Hauerwas, has been a siren song that I’ve been listening to in recent years).
I believe that these times require fresh insights. This is what I have in mind: 4) the moral mission of the Church first of all is to do nothing, for that is the supreme action. For Christmas, this will mean, concretely: do nothing but march in place and sing. This, I believe, is the first thing that Mother Mary’s song tells those of us who are struggling to be Christians today. For this season, never mind what appears to be happening in Washington, D.C., know this. God is in charge! So magnify the Lord!
Why not believe something like that that’s so overwhelmingly implausible? Why not march in place, for a time, doing what in the eyes of this world is nothing? Why not just stand there and celebrate the birth of the Suffering Non-Violent Liberator, in particular (see Luke 4:18-19)? For this Suffering Non-Violent Liberator is at work, according to the witness of the Bible, invisibly but powerfully, everywhere, especially among the poor and downtrodden creatures of this world.
What the Gospel of Luke identifies as Mother Mary’s song might well have been familiar to Luke as a hymn that was sung in a number of Jewish-Christian communities in the Holy Land by the “Poor Ones,” the Anawim – a word that was used “originally to denote the physically poor, but in time came to be applied to people in Israel who were unfortunate, lowly, sick, downtrodden. Their opposites were not simply the rich, but included the proud, the arrogant, those who felt no need of God.” (Joseph Fitzmeyer)
This Christmas, then, do nothing, except march in place and sing, because the Bible tells us so. God has entered the world in this Child as the world’s Suffering Non-Violent Liberator. Never mind how things appear to be playing out on the stage of human history today, the Suffering Non-Violent Liberator is at work everywhere, especially amidst the anguished hovels and the trembling hearts of the Anawim of this world. Therefore march in place and cheer.
Note well, however, that the Christmas season isn’t forever. Before too long, Epiphany and Lent will be upon us, when we’ll be reaffirming the second thing in our moral mission as people who are trying to be Christians: what it means for us to invoke the Zulu tonalities of Siyahamba, “We Are Marching in the Light of God.” This Christmas, as we stomp our feet to celebrate the arrival of the Suffering Non-Violent Liberator and his primal ministry to the Anawim, we will also be readying ourselves to stand with them wherever He and they might be found, not just inside, but also beyond the household of faith, perhaps even as far away as that caravan of refugees just outside the southern border of the United States of America. Call this dual vision of the Church’s moral mission (vision no. 4) – first marching in place, second marching on – the Anawim option. That’s what the song of Mother Mary inspires me to ponder and to celebrate this year.
NOTE: A few days after I had finished these reflections, I picked up the January 4, 2019 issue of Commonweal. That not-to-be-missed Catholic review of religion, politics, and culture sometimes reruns articles from its own archives. This one, published September 20, 1968, was an essay by the Catholic theologian and social critic, Herbert McCabe (d. 2001), whom I used to follow closely, beginning back in the sixties: “Priesthood & Revolution: Where Christianity and Marxism Part Ways.” I may have read that essay back then; I’m not sure.
Be that as it may, I have just discovered that McCabe referenced the Anawim in that essay. I thought that I had first learned about that group of first century Jewish Christians, who were “of low estate,” when I was working with the commentary on the Magnificat in Luke by the Catholic biblical scholar, Joseph Fitzmeyer. Perhaps, then, the popular half-truth, “There are no coincidences in history,” might be more than a half-truth. Could it be that my own pedestrian Christmas reflections in 2018 are, in truth, dependent, in some sense, on McCabe’s eloquent insights in 1968? I would like to think so.
For as I read – re-read? – McCabe’s reflections about the Church as a movement for truth and justice for the Anawim within the global human community (I would want to specify, in addition, that that movement is underway within the global community of all earth-creatures), my mind and heart resonated with McCabe’s voice and I was inspired by his vision, all over again. Needless to say, I hope that anyone who is reading my 2018 Christmas reflectcions will also find time to search and find and read McCabe’s inspiring essay, as well.
Pianist Jeremy Denk came to Boston recently to play Charles Ives. My wife and I have been following Jeremy for years. Never mind his international stature, his MacArthur Genius Award and the Avery Fisher Prize and many other professional achievements, he happens to be the uncle of two of our grandchildren. But apart from a few family gatherings, we know him best as an eminent musician and spectacular performer.
In Boston, this time around, Jeremy was at the top of his game. His performances are rarely, if ever, just performances. They are events. Jeremy engages his audiences with his wit, his charm, and his own passionate love for the music he is presenting. That’s it – presenting. Not just performing. He is present, powerfully. And he carries his music, like a server at some elegant restaurant arriving at your table with your entrée on a tray. He carries the music to you personally, as if you are the only one in the audience.
Apparently there has been some discussion recently in musicological circles about such matters. I have lately been laboring through the magisterial study, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, by John Eliot Gardiner. Some students of Bach, Gardiner observes, maintain that the study of Bach should just be the study of Bach’s music, not also the study of Bach’s self-conscious, ingenious, and pervasive intention for his music to touch and even to overpower his audiences. Gardiner himself believes that no one can grasp Bach’s music fully and deeply, without some awareness, conscious or unconscious, of Bach’s inclusion of his audiences in his compositional creativity. In a like manner, as a presenter, Jeremy’s intention, from start to finish, is to allow the music to take hold of the audience, indeed he always wants to foster that encounter.
Nowhere was that musical intentionality more apparent, in my experience, than in Jeremy’s Boston presentation of four violin sonatas by Charles Ives, aided seamlessly by the young violinist, Stefan Jackiw. This is how those sonatas were described, in part, in the program notes by Zoe Kemmerling. Ives, she says, “didn’t rely on complex tonal systems or extended instrumental techniques to push boundaries. The music embedded in small-town American life at the end of the 19th century, church hymns and the strains of municipal bands, surrounded Ives throughout his youth and formed his compositional building blocks…. A love of simple tunes met an appetite for polytonality and dissonance to create one of the most recognizable compositional voices of the early 20th century…. All four sonatas evoke aspects of a particular scene: the religious ‘camp meetings’ that took place during the summer at Danbury’s Brookside Park. Sultry New England summer weather and the freedom of the outdoors, as well as the fervor of religious exultation amplified by a group consciousness, are the context for these volatile, rejoicing, impulsive works.”
Consider the audience of which I was a part in Boston that night. Secular Boston, indeed. Aesthetic Boston (Kierkegaard), for sure. I wager that few, if any, in that gathering were familiar with most of those old-time hymn tunes. No, if I may say so, this was not the Tory party at prayer, as Churchill once described the Church of England, this was, for the most part, a gathering of the “cultured despisers of religion” (Friedrich Schleiermacher) meeting to further enhance their post-modern sensibilities. As cultural remnants of a bygone era, my wife and I nudged each other every time we heard one of those old-time melodies. Who else heard those tunes?
Jeremy, of course, was well aware of such dynamics. This is why he imported an excellent barbershop quartet to give voice to that old-time music before each sonata. Words like these: “I need Thee, O I need Thee, every hour I need Thee! O bless me now, my Savior – I come to Thee!” Or these: “What a friend we have in Jesus, All our sins and griefs to bear! What a privilege to carry Everything to God in prayer! Oh, what peace we often forfeit; Oh, what needless pain we bear – All because we do not carry Everything to God in prayer!”
Then we listened to each sonata, each of which fractured, tore apart, and trampled on those old-time tunes, with powerful dissonances, like blows of a sledge hammer slamming into granite. Ives introduced some moments of existential repose and peace, to be sure, and Jeremy and his partner gave voice to such feelings, tenderly and softly. I imagined at such moments that a worker in a rock quarry had put down his sledge hammer, wiped his brow, and was listening, O so briefly, to the music of the wind or to the songs of the birds. But Ives’ dissonance in those sonatas, as I heard it, was relentless from start to finish. Yet so were the harmonies of those old-time tunes, which kept emerging, as if in the midst of a thunderstorm you came upon and old house on whose porch a violinist was playing an old time tune. Was there any resolution? Which had the final word, the resilient, powerful hymnody or the overpowering, inescapable dissonance? I think that Jeremy left us breathless with that question at the end, echoing Ives himself, or so it sounded to me.
Which brings me to Jesus. And not any old Jesus, but Jesus as we know him in the Gospel of Mark, in particular. This is a Gospel of profound brokenness. The voice of the Savior can be heard, but it’s only in the midst of the storms of this life, ultimately crying from the Cross. Some of us are now living in the year after numerous Christian communions around the world marked the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Luther predicated that profoundly disturbing – so it was then – spiritual movement on what he called “the theology of the Cross.” His signature hymn, A Mighty Fortress is Our God, ends this way: “God’s Word forever shall abide, No thanks to foes, who fear it; For God himself fights by our side With weapons of the Spirit. Were they to take our house, Goods, honor, child, or spouse, Though life be wrenched away, They cannot win the day. The Kingdom’s ours forever!”
Which Jesus is the Church proclaiming and following in these our apocalyptic times? The peace-of-mind Jesus of post World War II America? The personal Savior, whom I am supposed to take into my heart, of the last several decades? The prosperity Savior, announced in our own day, who helps all his followers to get rich? Or is it Mark’s Jesus? Or Luther’s Jesus? Jesus, the Crucified.
Give me Charles Ives’ Jesus any day. And give me Jeremy Denk’s interpretation of Ives, for sure, which rightfully, in my view, leaves the tension between the old-time tunes and our modern and postmodern dissonances dramatically unresolved.