What's Next for the Reformation?

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.

In the past 100 years humans moved more rocks and soil, and they lost and poisoned more topsoil and water than did volcanoes, glaciers and tectonic plates. They altered the thin envelope of the atmosphere dramatically and put record numbers of people in competition with one another and the rest of life in the effort to eke out a livelihood (or enjoy excess).

Accelerated climate change, by itself, may be the most important alteration of the planet in thousands of years. It is nonetheless only one dynamic in a vast process that has put the planet in jeopardy at human hands.

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

Evidently the story we’re caught in is anti-Earth. It’s a story that doesn’t bother to ask what Earth requires for its regeneration and renewal on its terms and time lines, a story in which the dynamic processes of a surging global economy overwhelm Earth’s own, far slower, metabolic processes.

Accelerated climate change, dying coral reefs, degraded soils, air and waterways, and the sixth great wave of species extinction are all stark witnesses to this anti-Earth story. Nothing like this has happened to Earth in a very long time, and never, on this scale, at human hands.

The story we’re caught in is also 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 writer of Ecclesiastes is moved to say: “For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth?” (

The ground cries out

It may surprise us, but not Luther, that when that first terrible act of brother killing brother occurs, and Cain slays Abel, it is the ground, adamah, that cries out. And adamah is cursed by this deadly human violence. Why? Cain’s anguish, full of pathos, tells why: “My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you [God] have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me” (
Genesis 4:13-14).

God, abounding in mercy, then marks Cain to protect him from a death like he inflicted upon Abel. Yet Cain, now driven from the soil, is so alienated from his origins as a creature of Earth that he becomes “a fugitive and a wanderer,” settling in “Nod, east of Eden.” Nod is Hebrew for “wandering.” Cain is a lost soul in a land of homelessness. He dwells beyond Eden with no prospect of return. Human life is so bundled with the rest of life that to violate the one is to violate the other.

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).

All this said, it is nonetheless German Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who takes us farthest along the road we need to travel to find the right story and the Reformation’s next chapter.

Bonhoeffer, whose centennial we celebrate this year, initially sounds themes he learned from Luther. A 1929 address on “The Foundations of Christian Ethics” includes the striking statement: “Earth remains our Mother, as God remains our Father, and the Mother will not lay in the Father’s arms those who are not true to her. Earth and its distress; this is the Christian’s Song of Songs.”

Fidelity to God

For Bonhoeffer, it’s quite simple: 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.

“The essential point of human existence is its bond with mother earth, its being as body. Body is the existence-form of spirit, as spirit is the existence-form of body” (Creation and Fall,
Augsburg Fortress, 1997).

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.”

Bonhoeffer is no romantic here. Writing in the early 1930s, he sought a theological alternative to fascism’s aggressive nature romanticism of Blut und Boden, “blood and soil.” At the same time, he searched for an alternative to the “orders of creation” theology by which German Lutheran theologians of the day wittingly or unwittingly sanctioned the early Nazi focus on family, church and right-wing populism. (Kinder, Kirche, Kueche—Children, Church, Kitchen—was the conservative mantra the Nazis used to mask a more radical agenda.)

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.

Earlier, in 1932, Bonhoeffer moved beyond Luther into needed cultural analysis: An address at Berlin’s Institute of Technology argues that the “human conquest of nature is the foundational theme of Euro-American history.” The very aim of the West, the whole modern project, is “to turn nature to [our] service” and at the same time free us from dependence upon nature. This unrelenting battle against nature as the alien “other,” even as the “enemy” to be “conquered,” alarmed Bonhoeffer because, he said, the West thereby takes on a death-dealing identity.

“War and industry,” or “the machine and war,” he concluded, have become the chief means of self-assertion, problem-solving and even identity. Bonhoeffer, often cautious, finished bluntly here, without any nuance whatsoever: “[Euro-
American] life in its essence means ‘to kill.’ ”

In other words, Euro-American civilization destroys both natural and human communities in the process of seeking to sever its bonds with the rest of nature and eliminate its utter dependence upon it.

In the 1944-45 prison letters he later wrote that while we seek to replace “nature” with “organization” as our immediate environment, our uses of technology lack the requisite “spiritual force” to render them constructive rather than destructive.

Bonhoeffer’s analysis is stark and may come as news to some. But it isn’t news to indigenous peoples
of the Americas or the great- grandsons and daughters of slaves. Settler nations and slave-holding ones often created political-economic systems that were simultaneously destructive of natural communities and those human communities that lived closest to nature, unbuffered by a built environment achieved via industry and war.

In different words, 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.

What better way to live the feisty, gracious freedom of the Christian who Luther said, is “lord of all, subject to none, and neighbor to all, subject to all.”


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