Eco-minded: Faith and Action

by Charles Pinches

Charles Pinches teaches theology at the University of Scranton in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, August 12-19, 1998, pp. 755-757. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Pinches reviews a book by Larry Rasmussen in which Rasmussen proposes “sustainability” as the correct goal for human interaction with the earth. But he also notes that this description is prone to abuse, for it has been too easily twined with expansionism.

BOOK REVIEW: Earth Community, Earth Ethics,b y Larry L. Rasmussen. Orbis, 425 pp., $30.00.

In an article published in Science in 1967, Lynn White called Christianity the root historical cause of our ecological crisis. This infamous indictment has now been qualified by the response of many theologians who, while admitting Christianity's complicity in our environmental plight, have pointed out its considerable resources for ecological thinking. Some presses, such as Orbis Books, now publish several series of books on the environment and Christianity, and offer a book list as long as your arm.

It is not yet clear, however, that Christian theology and the environmental crisis have genuinely come to terms with each other. It has been difficult for the authors of the new "ecobooks" to resist either the trendy and jargonistic enthusiasm that typically accompanies a social movement or the crisis mentality that attaches itself to this one. For an illustration of the former problem, consider the following passage from Howard Clinebell's Ecotherapy:

Discovering, befriending and intentionally developing one's profound rootedness in the life-giving biosphere is the process that produces what is called healthy biophilia and ecobonding. Ignoring, denying or rejecting this inherent earth-rootedness is called ecophobia and ecoalienation. Ecobonding involves claiming and enjoying one's nurturing, energizing, life-enhancing connection with nature. Ecophilia is the love of life associated with this bonding with the earth. Ecoalienation involves seeking to distance oneself from our inescapable life-giving dependence on nature. Ecophobia is the fear of claiming one's dependence and bonding intimately with nature.

Clinebell also points out the gap that exists between the judgments of theology, Christian or otherwise, and some of the new trends: "Divisive religions with exclusivistic beliefs that only their understanding of faith has spiritual validity tend to block the cooperative global earth-saving and peacemaking efforts that will he required to reverse the ecological crisis." Clinebell doesn't name the divisive religions, yet the generality of this claim in a book that is otherwise so accepting tells us that while Clinebell is interested in many things, he is not drawn to theology unless it can be reunderstood in terms of "religion" or "spirituality," terms with which he has no quarrel. "The terms religion and spirituality in this book are used as rough synonyms and are defined generically from a perspective of the disciplines of psychology of religion and sociology of religion. They refer to whatever beliefs about ultimate reality and values people use to provide themselves with some sense of meaning and direction."

Though Clinebell and other writers combine a concern for ecology with a concern for religion/theology, this interest does not ensure a happy relationship between the two. Some "ecologians," as author Thomas Berry prefers to be called, have considerable reason to dispense with past religious traditions. They believe that the stories from these traditions cannot correctly express the relation between human beings and the earth. These thinkers frequently point out that the ecological crisis is involved and multidimensional. It touches, evidently, on the scientific, the moral, the political and the religious. And it calls, therefore, for a broad response that can be bound by no particular set of past loyalties.

It is hard to argue about the depth of our current trouble; we all know that we have dug ourselves into a large ecological hole. Yet the conceptualization of the issue in such broad terms has led many of these new writers into quicksand. In our time a moral crisis takes a predictable form. First, the problem is stated in all its force, and people's consciousness is raised. Then we look for a solution, considering various inadequate responses along the way, pointing out their inability to effect deep and sweeping change.

One need not quarrel with this structure per se in order to notice a difficulty it creates for theological thinking. The immensity of the environmental crisis and the felt need to do something about it quickly sends us scurrying for an answer. We may look to theology, but we do so with some idea in mind of what will count as a solution to the crisis, particularly in its global nature. Thus the theology in the new ecobooks is often thin, rushed and generally custom-molded to the various authors' understanding of the nature of the crisis. Moreover, because the required theology is linked with radical change, it demands significant revisions of traditional Christian notions. For example, as Michael Northcott says in The Environment and Christian Ethics, the new ecotheologies have frequently swept aside the key Christian and Jewish notion that while the universe is the good creation of God, it is yet distinct from God. A more pantheistic picture is appealing, partly because of the desire to abolish the instrumentalism of the predominant Western picture that nature is worth only what human beings can use it for. Therefore the ecologians, in Northcott's words, determine to "remake" Christian beliefs in the light of the environmental crisis.

Unlike some of the books just characterized, Larry Rasmussen's Earth Community, Earth Ethics proceeds patiently and thoughtfully. It is finely, even exquisitely crafted, and in places is breathtakingly written. Moreover, it is intriguingly structured. Three sections--"Earth Scan," "Earth Faith" and "Earth Action"--unfold into chapters bearing evocative titles such as "Sweet Betsy and Her Avalanche" or "The Vine Languishes, the Merry-Hearted Sigh."

Yet one still feels the nagging tension between explicitly theological categories and those of the environmental crisis and deep ecology. In Rasmussen's case, however, this is not because theological concepts are radically revised but because theology is not the primary language of the book. While Rasmussen does a bit of theology here and there, the book lacks a theological structure. He never decides to consider systematically or historically what Christian theology has to say about ecology, the earth or even creation. As a result, there is no theological context into which the reader can place the book's otherwise quite interesting reflections about our environmental troubles.

Not that Rasmussen ignores theological voices; in the second section of the book, Luther and Bonhoeffer are consulted frequently. Yet these voices are mingled with the voices of others who speak from no particular theological perspective. This is possible because the primary criterion for inclusion into Rasmussen's choir is essentially aesthetic or evocative. He is principally concerned not with whether an idea or text is theologically astute but with whether it moves our spirits.

It is best to understand the book as a valiant attempt at art. It contains arguments, but they are laced together not by a theological position, but by their evocative effect. This opens the book up to a different standard of judgment. It scores high, for instance, in "The Gifts of Darkness," in which Rasmussen combines recollections of nighttime in his child's room and in sleepless modern cities, the Jewish understanding of Sabbath rest, and the poetry of Langston Hughes. Sometimes it doesn't work, as when a long and confusing excerpt from Toni Morrison's Beloved is presented as if it were an appropriate summary of Bonhoeffer's interpretation of Paul on the hope of the resurrection.

Structurally, the book opens with the global crisis. What is the appropriate way for us to live in the face of our current environmental condition? Rasmussen proposes "sustainability" as the correct goal for human interaction with the earth. But he also notes that this description is prone to abuse, for it has been too easily twined with expansionism. Even such organizations as the United Nations have been drawn in by the facile notion--which also carries the name "sustainability"--that economic development, or the expansion of capitalism and its accompaniments, will lift up the poor even as it heals the earth. In a variety of convincing examples, Rasmussen demonstrates the unsustainability of this idea of "sustainability." He rejects the presumption that the earth exists to host human economic activities, and calls the idea scientifically and spiritually untenable. We have recently discovered how complex cycles of nature are; we must abandon the idea that humankind can organize and manipulate them to achieve some neat, predetermined end. The fluctuation of fish populations in the Atlantic, for example, does not seem to correspond to factors that we can predict and therefore manipulate. Furthermore, the model underlying earlier presumptions about easy manipulation and continued economic development perpetuates the picture of humankind as external to nature. The book's first section takes aim at this tenacious misconception.

For Rasmussen, the right sort of sustainability requires a change of heart. We must understand ourselves and our eco-nomies to "be part of that comprehensive nature." For this change, more "knowledge" will never be enough. "Not just knowledge (scientia) but wisdom (sapientia) and the psalmist's contrite heart and humble spirit are requirements of sustainable community itself. Issues of sustainability are as much dispositional and ethical as they are technical." It is here that the tenets of an "earth faith" must be explored.

Rasmussen's knowledge of scientific and economic literature is impressive. Yet by training and reputation he wears the mantle of theologian; consequently the cogency of the second "earth faith" section will determine the full success of the book. Can Rasmussen sustain a deep theology as he deepens our ecology? The answer is mixed; in the second section the presentation both soars and falters, not so much because Rasmussen's theology is untenable, but because it is secondary.

Rasmussen calls for an "adequate cosmology" to provide the dispositional and ethical resources for the right sort of sustainability. The form of this call is dangerous, as I have suggested, because it goes looking for an answer from theology (or elsewhere) that will be "adequate" in terms already specified by a certain understanding of the environmental crisis. This leads Rasmussen summarily to pronounce that "theological luminaries" both ancient and modern are cosmologically inadequate. "In short, neither existentialism, neoorthodoxy, liberalism, common church practice, nor society at large in the North Atlantic world has a cosmology worthy of the name in many influential circles." In addition, Rasmussen acts as if what we need to do is look for a religion according to its cosmological adequacy, whatever that is finally judged to be. Since "degraded religion degrades religion" you must "choose your religion and cosmology carefully."

Fortunately for the book, Rasmussen does not proceed to choose his religion but dives into the rich symbols of his own Christian faith and of its Jewish mother faith. For example, consider trees. We can discover in Hebrew scripture, particularly in the poetry of the Psalms or the prophets, rich reminders of the sturdy cedars of Lebanon. This is a background that can be filled in with newer evocations--such as the Christian's vision of the tree of execution, the cross, as the tree of life.

The tracing of symbols through time and tradition is not unfamiliar to Christian theologians; the church fathers and many later medieval theologians did this frequently. There is a difference, however. In that earlier context, the intent was to display a doctrine or practice more fully, such as the doctrine of salvation or the practice of Christian baptism. So a discussion of trees (as in the cross) or of the ubiquity in life and nature of water (as in baptism) deepened and in some cases redirected existing belief and practice. But in Earth Community, Rasmussen uses the Jewish and Christian sources as a jumping-off point, extending the symbol to include a variety of poetic expressions. The literature is impressive, but the criterion for inclusion of this or that bit is not theological but aesthetic.

We can see this feature most clearly when Rasmussen deals with scripture. He integrates it with other works in an imaginative rather than authoritative way. Scripture is only one of a variety of places Rasmussen goes to find passages about the earth that will grip us. Although this makes for stimulating reading, it cuts off a main route to theological reflection.

There is good reason for the theologian to begin reflection about God's earth with the story and doctrine of creation. In so doing, she signals the story's authority, one which sets a standard of judgment for the subsequent integration of other doctrines and stories. The new doctrines or stories can interpret, criticize and even change the starting point. Nonetheless, it retains authority because it has established the theological terms of the debate.

This authority is missing in Rasmussen's approach because he has traded theology for aesthetics. This move creates another problem: What to do when we find ourselves untouched by the stories or poetry he serves us? Were a theological argument unfolding, an evocative misstep could be taken in stride, since something larger would sustain our interest. If we found ourselves disagreeing, we would know what to do, namely, argue out the point.. But when our tastes in art and literature don't match Rasmussen's, we shift into neutral and wait for something more appealing to come along.

Theology plays a greater role in the later chapters of this crucial second section, where Rasmussen considers a variety of different ways in which the human-nature relation has been expressed in Jewish and Christian theology, including concepts such as dominion or stewardship. Without being dismissive of other models, he decides that "an evolutionary sacramentalist cosmology offers the richest conceptual resources for addressing earth's distress, if infused with a profound earth asceticism and married to prophetic efforts aimed at the 'liberation of life from the cell community.'" Although rather heavy-laden, this statement introduces some of Rasmussen's most astute reflections.

In "The Beginnings," a chapter drawing upon law and prophets, Rasmussen displays how the governing order of the universe is not perceived therein as fixed. With the God of the Hebrews, "ordinary people--indeed the apparently powerless--can subvert deeply entrenched powers and help effect a new world." Hence, for many of the biblical writers, "the grandeur of creation goes hand in hand with the transformation of the social world."

Here is a fitting place to begin forging a theological response to the questions raised by a concern for an economics in which earth and human community are laced together seamlessly.

The book reaches its high point here, as Rasmussen displays his theological stuff, interacting primarily with Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. With Bonhoeffer, Rasmussen unflinchingly reaffirms that we are a "piece of the earth" even in the face of the perverse blood-and-soil faith of the Nazis. The language cannot be given up precisely because we are--and God has become--body. Any other faith, particularly the spiritualism to which Christianity is often tempted, draws us back, hovering over earth as if it is inert and thus instrumental to our separate purposes.

Unfortunately, these suggestive reflections are too brief, and we are led back to less original points. The lesson of evolutionary science--that we are all interconnected--is replayed to no clear end, and the book concludes with suggestions for "earth action" that are largely borrowed from other sources. The comparative brevity of the final section makes it feel more like an appendix (even if some of the practical suggestions taken from Wendell Berry or, intriguingly, the Common Bread Restaurant and Bakery in South Minneapolis are worth hearing). The book ends without a full display of its theological ideas.

Despite its deficiencies, Earth Community, Earth Ethics is a valuable and interesting work. It confirms that Rasmussen is a gifted writer and a scholar of considerable range, and that, theologically, he has something important to say. Unfortunately, since he gives theological reflection a secondary place, one gets the idea that he is not yet sure how to exercise the office of Christian theologian in the face of the ecological reorientation. One hopes that Rasmussen will write more, and that the dives he takes into a Christian theology are a preview of a full submersion. .