Professional Trajectory

The Rev. Dr. H. Paul Santmire is a historian and pastoral scholar in the disciplines of ecological theology, environmental ethics, and Christian liturgy and spirituality. His book Celebrating Nature by Faith: Studies in Reformation Theology in an Era of Global Emergency (2020) caps his more than fifty years of responding to the ecological and social justice challenges of our era.

Widely recognized for his pioneering theological leadership, Dr. Santmire is the author of Brother Earth: Nature, God, and Ecology in a Time of Crisis (1970), a groundbreaking study, among the first of its kind. He has lectured throughout the U.S., in seminary, university, congregational, and a variety of ecumenical and denominational settings. His book, Before Nature: A Christian Spirituality (2014), was endorsed by a wide variety of pastoral practitioners and academic theologians.

His historical overview of Christian theologies of nature, The Travail of Nature: the Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology (1985), published in Fortress Press’s prestigious Theology and the Sciences series, has been called a “little classic” by Philip Hefner, a leading theological participant in North American religion and science dialogues.

The eminent process theologian John Cobb has said that this work is “a fair, historically responsible assessment of the view of nature in the tradition of Christian theology” that allows Christians “in full responsibility to their heritage… to bring the church onto the side of ecological sensitivity.”

Of the same book, the renowned historian Lynn White, Jr. wrote: “Anyone, agnostic or religious, who wants to understand public attitudes toward ecology and how the very considerable force of religion in America may continue to shape them will enjoy and profit by this unusual book.”

Much preoccupied with social justice issues throughout his career, Dr. Santmire responded to the church struggle against apartheid in his book South African Testament: From Personal Encounter to Theological Challenge (1987) at the height of the crisis in that country, when there was little hope for peaceful transformation.

During his 13-year inner-city pastorate in Hartford, CT, Dr. Santmire was a founder and “the godfather” of a grass-roots community organization that mobilized low-income and minority constituencies. He also regularly addressed social justice issues as an Op-Ed columnist for the Hartford Courant.

Dr. Santmire’s study Nature Reborn: The Ecological and Cosmic Promise of Christian Theology (2000) presents a “revisionist” testament of ecological theology, ranging through topics such as creation and cosmology, Christology and mission, spirituality and liturgy, ecological ethos and environmental ethics, and drawing on witnesses as diverse as Augustine and the classical Celtic saints, St. Francis and Luther, Martin Buber and John Muir.

Of this work, Larry Rasmussen, formerly the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York, has written: “It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of what Santmire has undertaken. The stream of the Christian story he has identified is plainly critical to the mandatory faith experiment now underway, and Santmire has full command of his materials. He has in fact demonstrated, even in this slender volume, the Earth-honoring promise of the story he identifies.”

Dr. Santmire’s liturgical interests are deeply rooted in his own fifty-plus years of pastoral praxis. This is the context that gave birth to his study, Ritualizing Nature: Renewing Christian Liturgy in a Time of Crisis (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008). The eminent liturgical theologian, Gordon H. Lathrop, author of Holy Ground: A Liturgical Cosmology (2003), has said of Ritualizing Nature: “We have needed Paul Santmire to write this book. For decades, his has been one of the most important voices enabling us to hold Christian faith and a response to the crisis in nature together. He has always been interested in sacramental and liturgical practice, but now he turns his full attention to the rituals Christians hold and the countercultural, earth-caring ethos they propose. The result is an honest and hopeful proposal. Read this book, and let it help you think again about the importance of the basic symbols your local community enacts. Here is life-giving liturgy for the whole ecumenical house—that is for the whole earth and all of its creatures.”

Perhaps Dr. Santmire’s most accessible book, which summarizes many of his insights over the years in the form of personal narratives, is Behold the Lilies: Jesus and the Contemplation of Nature – a Primer (2017). This book reads Jesus’ well-known words as a command for all who would seek to be followers of Jesus.
In 2004, Dr. Santmire was awarded the “Charles J. Miller Christian Scholar’s Award” by the publisher and editors of Christian Scholar’s Review for producing the best article of the preceding year (CSR 32:4 [Summer 2003], 381-412) in that journal: “Partnership with Nature According to the Scriptures: Beyond the Theology of Stewardship.”

Some of the contours of Dr. Santmire’s theology, as it was developing, have been discussed in scholarly studies: Claude Y. Stewart, A Study of the Theology of Nature (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1983), especially chapter 2: “A Neo-Reformation Theology of Nature: the Approach of H. Paul Santmire”; Roderick Frazier Nash, The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), chapter 5, “The Greening of Religion,” especially pp. 103-108; Robert Booth Fowler, The Greening of Protestant Thought (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), especially pp. 92-100, “The Example of H. Paul Santmire”; and Kiara Jorgenson, Ecology of Vocation: Recasting Calling in a New Planetary Era (New York: Fortress Academic), 103-9.

Dr. Santmire is a cum laude graduate of Harvard College (1957) and the Lutheran Seminary at Philadelphia (1960); in 2004, he was chosen to receive that Seminary’s “Distinguished Alumnus Award.” He completed his doctoral studies at Harvard Divinity School (1966); his dissertation with systematic theologian Gordon Kaufman was a study of Karl Barth’s theology of nature. He brought these learnings to bear in the wider church as a theological contributor to the statements on the environment of the Lutheran Church in America (1972), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (1983), and the National Council of Churches of Christ, USA (2005). After more than fifty years as a college teacher and chaplain and as a parish pastor, Dr. Santmire has now retired in order to devote all of his professional time to research, writing, and lecturing.

Previously he served as Assistant Pastor of University Lutheran Church, Cambridge, Massachusetts (1965-1969), as the College Chaplain and as a Lecturer in Religion at Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts (1969-82), as pastor of an integrated urban church in Hartford, Connecticut (1982-1994), and as the Senior Pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, Akron, Ohio (1994-2001), a historic metropolitan congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran in America. He now lives in the Boston area, where he is a member of an inner-city African-American congregation, Resurrection Lutheran Church. He also is a regular participant in the liturgies of the Episcopal monastery of the Society of St. John the Apostle, Cambridge, MA. Throughout the year, he and his wife of four decades regularly retreat to their old farm house in southwestern Maine, overlooking New Hampshire’s White Mountains. In that setting, they garden, read, and care for a small wood lot and its adjacent fields. The Santmires have two adult children and five grandchildren.