What's Next for the Reformation

The following are excerpts from an article calling for ongoing reformation that embraces case for creation.
Larry Rasmussen's latest book is Earth Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key (Oxford University Press, 2013)

What's next for the Reformation?
As a living tradition, it could guide our care for the Earth

By: Larry Rasmussen and Michael Watson

The Lutheran, November 2006 issue

 

When history is written, we may well discover that the most important event of the 20th century was not two World Wars, the Cold War, the fall of state socialism or the triumph of global capitalism. Rather, the signature event was what was done to the Earth across the whole community of life—biosphere, human society and atmosphere. . . .

Yet we are slow to stir. Consider James Gustave Spaeth’s letter to The New York Times (Feb. 24) in response to an article, “Glaciers Flow to Sea at a Faster Pace, Study Says.” Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, New Haven, Conn., Spaeth wrote:

“The world we have known is history. A mere 1 degree Fahrenheit global average warming is already raising sea levels, strengthening hurricanes, disrupting ecosystems, threatening parks and protected areas, causing droughts and heat waves, melting the Arctic and glaciers everywhere, and killing thousands of people a year. …

“Yet there are several more degrees coming in our grandchildren’s lifetimes. … It is easy to feel like a character in a bad science fiction novel running down the street shouting, ‘Don’t you see it!’ while life goes on, business as usual. …

“Climate change is the biggest thing to happen here on earth in thousands of years, with incalculable environmental, social and economic costs.

“But there is no march on Washington; students are not in the streets; consumers are not rejecting their destructive lifestyles; Congress is not passing far-reaching legislation; the president is not on television explaining the threat to the country; Exxon is not quaking in its boots; and entire segments of evening news pass without mention of the climate emergency. …

“Instead, 129 new coal-fired plants are being developed in the United States alone, and so on. … There are many of us caught in this story. We must find another soon.”

What is “this story” we’re “caught in”? And how do we get to the other story we “must find … soon”? Will the churches of the Reformation aid in finding this other story?

Perhaps those future historians revisiting the 20th century will say the 21st century saw the ecological reformation of the churches. Perhaps they will write that Earth-honoring religious practice found real traction and thousands of congregations became serious centers of creation care. Perhaps this is what is next for the Reformation, itself, as a living tradition. The legacy of Martin Luther can guide us. . . .

An anti-Earth story

. . . . The story we’re caught in is one in which we don’t see ourselves as creatures of the Earth for the Earth. Creation seems little more than a stage, with resources and props. If that is so and how we live is wrongheaded, how do we inhabit an Earth-honoring story? One reply is the Lutheran Reformation itself—as passed along by Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Joseph Sittler.

Luther re-embeds us in creation as God’s good creatures of this Earth for this Earth. This contribution to a more viable story arises from his careful study of Scripture. Luther notices the prominence of adamah in the original Hebrew text of Genesis. Adamah literally means “from the earth.” Adam, the human earth creature, is created from adamah (topsoil). So are all the other creatures of Earth. All are kin, all are siblings of creation, all are adamah.

Likewise, all receive the same breath of life (ruach). They share the same animating spirit, they receive the same gracious gift of life, and they die the same death all creatures do. . . .

The ground cries out

. . . . Luther’s navigation of the Hebrew play of adam and adamah is available to English speakers as well. “Human” is from humus, rich topsoil! Our roots are thus properly “humble,” sunk in the soil. That is worthy of more “humor” than we often admit and enjoy, given the kind of “blasphemous strutting” of which Sittler speaks. We deny our earthiness, our creatureliness and think of ourselves, as a species, more highly than we ought, thereby committing the primal sin, “hubris.”

These linguistic connections still tell an Earth-embedded story we need to appropriate anew. Our language won’t be Luther’s alone, to be sure. It will also be the language of science: We share, with all else, a fierce communion of DNA, genes and the vigorous branching of the great Tree of Life. But the insight is Luther’s, and the tree is the same tree—the Tree of Life in the center of Eden and along the banks of crystalline waters that flow from the throne of God in the New Jerusalem of redeemed Earth (
Revelation 22:21-22). . . .

Fidelity to God

For Bonhoeffer, . . . fidelity to God is lived as fidelity to Earth. This is in keeping with our essential nature as adamah, as well as God’s nature as utterly incarnate. “Darwin and Feuerbach themselves could not speak more strongly than Genesis” in recognizing we are “a piece of earth” and that our “bond with the Earth belongs to (our) essential being.

. . . . In other contexts, Bonhoeffer added the persistent Lutheran theme of God’s utterly incarnate presence and power “in, with, and under” all things creaturely. He frequently quoted a 17th century German theologian, Friedrich Oetinger: “The end of God’s own ways is bodiliness.”

. . . . Rather than nationalistic nature romanticism, Bonhoeffer’s subject was “Earth and its distress”—broken Earth, degraded Earth, “fallen” or “cursed” Earth, Earth after Cain, Earth at the foot of the cross.

Bonhoeffer, following Luther, thus anchors us in Earth as true Earth creatures attuned with every sense to “the whole of earthly life” and “God’s promises” for all of it (the phrases from a prison letter of July 1944). But this perspective, while essential, doesn’t go far enough.

. . . . what Bonhoeffer has done for a Reformation-based, Earth-honoring story is incorporate a race/class/culture-and-nature analysis, what he, in prison, called the clarifying and purging insights of “the view from below” (in contrast with views fashioned from the social privilege he also knew). The Christian’s Song of Songs is “Earth and its distress,” all of it.

Following a Christ of nature

Theologian Joseph Sittler will be remembered as the first Lutheran “ecologian.” In 1954 he vowed “as a son of Earth [to] know no rest” until Earth’s voices were gathered up “into a deeper and fuller understanding of [Christian] faith.” Earth’s voices have about them “the shine of the holy.” From 1954 on, Sittler taught a Lutheran theology in which the arc of redemption matched the arc of creation itself.

His famous address to the World Council of Churches in 1961 called for a “daring, penetrating, life-affirming Christology of nature.” Until we follow such a Christ of nature, Sittler said, the powers of grace won’t be loosed upon Earth “to diagnose, judge, and heal the ways of humans as they blasphemously strut about this hurt and threatened world as if they owned it.”

“Loosing the powers of grace” as Earth creatures for Earth is the great work of reformation of this and the next generation, to move inch-by-inch from a cumulatively destructive presence of human beings on the planet to a mutually enhancing relationship between humankind and the rest of God’s good Earth. . . .

© 2006 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers. The Lutheran is the magazine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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