What I Told the Members of the Class of 1957: One Testimony for These Times

     When you were sitting through your last graduation ceremony, your own or a child’s, say, as you were dutifully trying to listen to the commencement speaker, did your mind ever wander? Of course it did. More particularly, did you ever think, along the way, what you would have liked to be saying yourself, had you been the speaker? Perhaps.

     What follows is not a graduation speech, you’ll be relieved to hear. My stuff here is much shorter. But it’s not altogether different either. These are edited excerpts from some thoughts that I shared with my Harvard College classmates in the Sixty-fifth Anniversary Report of the Class of 1957. I share these reflections here perhaps for their entertainment value – college students a few years after my own graduation in 1957, some may remember, popularized the mantra, “never trust anyone over 30.” So much for the likes of me at age 86 today! 

     But I also share these thoughts here as a mundane example of what some scholars have called “testimony literature,” which I hope will challenge those of my readers who are also struggling to be persons of faith: to go and to do – or to keep doing – likewise, when you converse with your own classmates or others like them.

     Be that as it may, when I wrote this report, I was well aware that most of my own classmates once upon a time had been and probably had long continued to be, if I may say so, of a secular persuasion. What follows, then, is my own testimony to them, however indirect, as a person who’s still trying to be a Christian after all these years.

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I suspect that most members of the Class of 1957 will not want that ancient “curse,” which I learned on the streets back in the day when I was doing community organizing, to come true: “may you live in interesting times.” In this spirit, I will not try to explore any of the great issues of our era here. I will only briefly narrate some down-home personal matters. Then I will get to the thing that’s most been preoccupying me in recent years, which I believe is really interesting.

Over the last two decades, my wife of fifty-plus years, Laurel, and I have lived in Watertown, MA, a mile away from Harvard Square. We first met, mirabile dictu, at University Lutheran Church, nestled in Harvard’s world. In our retirement, we’ve moved back to the area. Since then, she and I have often walked into the Square for concerts and restaurants. But, alas, we’ve stopped doing that, not primarily due to Covid restrictions, but because of my arthritic knees. My contact with the world of Harvard these days is mainly at a distance; but that’s gratifying in its own way.

We live along the Charles River in a building high enough to see much of the university before us, as well as the vast, new Harvard developments across the Charles River in Boston’s Allston neighborhood. It all looks promising. I hope, in particular, that Harvard will continue to listen to the demands of Allston residents. Unfortunately in this as in other settings, money talks. And Harvard has lots of money, which makes it difficult for members of the working classes to keep living in Allston, as Harvard continues to “develop” the neighborhood.

On the home front over the years, I decided early on, and have continued to believe with enthusiasm, that the traditional language of the Church is right: marriage is a “holy estate,” notwithstanding its all-too-frequent existential brokenness. Not too long ago, I even wrote an autobiographical essay about “marital spirituality,” celebrating this holy estate (Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality [Fall 2020, 20:2, pp. 231-250]). Our two children and their families live relatively near-by, our son in suburban Wayland, MA, where he’s a special-education teacher and our daughter in Portland, ME, where she invests herself intensely in her Friends Meetings and also shepherds her own grant-writing business. We see them and their families often, especially at our home-away-from-home in rural, southwestern Maine, a rooted place that I’ve written about frequently.

Turns out that I have now lived in retirement in Watertown longer than I have ever lived anywhere else. Given my vocation as a parish and campus pastor and a teaching theologian over the years, I moved from place to place frequently. Still, I ended up being a kind of writer each step along the way, which practice has given my vocational trajectory a certain organic unity, notwithstanding me bumping around to different assignments. I am grateful for this writing habit, even though I never intended it to happen precisely this way.

That organic unity, in retrospect, began to come into view when I was a doctoral student at Harvard Divinity School in the sixties. Back then I helped to invent a new field, ecological theology, and I have been at it, in a variety of contexts, ever since, beginning publicly with my first book, Brother Earth: Nature, God, and Ecology in a Time of Crisis (New York: Thomas Nelson, 1970). Since then I’ve published eight books in that now burgeoning field (brought to its most important and most stunning expression in Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si’). Rather than listing my writings in that field at this point, however, I will refer anyone who’s interested to this website where you are reading now. Here I only want to highlight my most recent book (forthcoming), a kind of tract for people in the trenches: EcoActivist Testament: Faith Exploration for Fellow Travelers (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2022).

That book has allowed me to explore what has been in retrospect a commitment of mine from the very beginnings of my vocational trajectory: ecojustice activism, a commitment which for me has been both profoundly interesting and profoundly troubling. Everything that I’ve stood for publicly for more than fifty years, I believe, has been rooted in this commitment. And that, in turn, has been predicated on the judgment that our world is more or less going to hell. Not an original insight, I know.

On the other hand, popular movements for ecojustice and ecosanity and ecohealing have arisen all around the world, especially evident in the ranks of generations much more recent than mine. Even Harvard is beginning to divest from fossil fuels, thanks to the persistence of mostly young activists (although: thank you, thank you, ­­Harvard alumnus, card-carrying Methodist, old guy Bill McKibben for being in the midst of it all, stirring up trouble!). The question is, as all who really think about these things now recognize, will we affluent humans be able to change our sinful ways in time (Reinhold Niebuhr once observed that Original Sin is the only empirically demonstrable Christian teaching)? Who knows? Not even God, I think.

Best then for all of us who can read the signs of these apocalyptic times to get with it, wherever we might find ourselves, drawing on whatever existential and financial resources we can muster. My father once said to me, gnomically, “when you take hold of the rug, you take hold of the whole rug.” Whatever that might mean, it’s obvious to me that everyone who cares about God’s green earth must take hold of God’s green earth somewhere. That’s what I have tried to do, especially in this the last stage of my life, as one who’s long been de facto a part of the global problematic of ecodestruction, socially and economically, as have most other Harvard graduates over the years. I have not made the argument in public, but I imagine that it can be made, convincingly, with respect to the current global ecojustice crisis: Harvard and its venerable alum’ constituency are much more part of the problem, than the solution. Still, I have persisted, along with numerous other graduates.

A prime example, for me, is this. In recent years, I have done everything I can to support the ecojustice ministries of a grassroots Church movement, Lutherans Restoring Creation (“LRC”). LRC is only one of dozens of – usually underfunded – grassroots Church ecojustice movements in the U.S. and around the world (I list some of them in chapter one of EcoActivist Testament). LRC pushes advocacy for ecojustice at a national level and ecoeducation and call-for-action at every level of my own particular faith community, the three-million member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). LRC shepherds the creation of “Green Synods” and “Green Congregations” and “Green Lifestyles” in the ELCA and provides resources for ecojustice preaching and ecojustice renewal of congregations’ liturgies and public witness. All this on a financial shoestring. Which sounds apostolic to me.

At my age, I can’t do much street-demonstrating anymore, although I haven’t ruled that out. I can’t travel to stand for hours in snow-covered mud to support Native American activists, who are standing up against the latest fossil fuel pipeline. More generally, however, I can raise a heavenly ruckus from time to time, with friends or with members of my Church, or by my voting or my writing. And, perhaps most importantly, I can find a way to invest some of my assets, not just my spare change, to help address the global crisis. For me that has meant donating a heap of green paper to help support the deep green mission of LRC. You don’t have to save the world, I keep telling myself, but you can take hold of the rug – and hold on, for dear life, with hope.