Chapter 8: Theology and Earth, by Larry L. Rasmussen

Ethical Issues in the Struggles for Justice
by Daniel Chetti and M.P. Joseph

Chapter 8: Theology and Earth, by Larry L. Rasmussen

Larry L. Rasmussen is Professor of Ethics at the Union Theological Seminary, New York.

K.C.Abraham’s leadership in ecumenical circles is well-known, especially where EATWOT and World Council of Churches circles overlap Asian ones. Steady attention to economic development and ecological issues, and the cruel choices they pose for so many poor, has been one of the passionate concerns he has given leadership within these circles. While this chapter of tribute is not an exposition of his thought on these matters, these pages are indebted to his writing and his leadership, and are meant to join ongoing attention to his persistent concerns.

Centennial Spirits

There is an extraordinary passage in the 1907 volume that helped launch the Social Gospel movement. It is Walter Rauschenbusch’s portrayal, in Christianity and the Social Crisis, of the gathering of the spirits of centuries past. "When the Nineteenth Century died," Rauschenbusch writes, "its Spirit descended to the vaulted chamber of the past, where the Spirits of the dead centuries sit on granite thrones together."1 There the Spirit of the Eighteenth Century asked for the mandated report; "Tell thy tale, brother. Give us word of the human kind we left to thee."2 What follows, as the witness of the Nineteenth Century, is only plausible as a confident expression of the extraordinary belief in Western-style Progress that Rauschenbusch and his generation and social stratum breathed daily.

I am the Spirit of the Wonderful Century. I gave men mastery over nature. Discoveries and inventions, which lighted the black space of the past like lovely stars, have clustered in the Milky Way of radiance under my rule. One man does by the touch of his hand what the toil of a thousand slaves never did. Knowledge has unlocked the mines of wealth, and the hoarded wealth of today creates the vaster wealth of tomorrow. Man has escaped the slavery of necessity and is free.

I freed the thoughts of men. They face the facts and know their knowledge is common to all. The deeds of the East at even are known in the West at morn. They send their whispers under the seas and across the clouds.

I broke the chains of bigotry and despotism. I made men free and equal. Every man feels the worth of his manhood.

I have touched the summit of history. I did for mankind what none of you did before. They are rich. They are wise. They are free.3

In Rauschenbusch’s report, the Spirits of the dead centuries sit in silence for a while, "with troubled eyes." Eventually the Spirit of the First Century speaks and asks a series of searing questions about the claims of the Nineteenth Century that "You have made men rich.... You have made men wise.... You have set them free... You have made them one."4 The Spirit of the Nineteenth Century listens carefully, then its head sinks to its breast, and the Spirit says:

Your shame is already upon me. My great cities are as yours were. My millions live from hand to mouth. Those who will toil longest have the least. My thousands sink exhausted before their days are half spent. My human wreckage multiplies. Class faces class in sullen distrust. Their freedom and knowledge has only made men keener to suffer.5

Pensive, and now with troubled eyes of its own, the Spirit of the Nineteenth Century can only issue a request: "Give me a seat among you, and let me think why it has been so."6

Rauschenbusch wrote that on the eve of the Twentieth Century’s birth, it is left to us to imagine what the Spirit of the Twentieth Century will testify in the gathering of the Spirits of the dead centuries when this one comes to a close, and what searing questions will be asked in response. No doubt we will also have to sit and, with troubled eyes, "think why it has been so."

Of course, the extraordinary fact may well be a simple one. Perhaps both the tally of unprecedented accomplishment and the litany of shame that Rauschenbusch penned could simply be repeated in 2007, only with stronger words about even starker realities. After all, the Twentieth Century both promised more than the Nineteenth and delivered on it. Goods and services increased fiftyfold. Lifetimes for millions, even billions, doubled. Equal numbers were lifted from misery. Children lived better than their parents. Education became a common treasure, as did better health. And the gifts of innumerable cultures, together with the amazing discoveries of science and invention of technology, moved far beyond their home borders.

At the same time, what were the Nineteenth Century’s domestic problems of industrializing nations have now gone global with a vengeance. Mass unemployment, severe cyclical slumps in rapid-fire investment and mobile business, the spreading distance between rich and poor in a confrontation of limousine plenty and homelessness, and limited revenues for limitless needs now afflict all societies, even if in drastically different proportion.

Still, there may be a difference of 2007 from 1907 beyond that of scale. If so, it rests somewhere near the intersection K.C. Abraham has been watching carefully in recent years: the incompatibility of The Big Economy (the global human economy) with The Great Economy (the economy of nature).7 Local human economies have been reduced to complications of transnational decisions, or simply left aside altogether. Governance efforts themselves are pulled apart by these transnational economic forces as the latter exercise political as well as economic power. Revolutions in communications and transport annihilate time and distance and invade traditional communities and their ways of life in destructive ways. And hardly anyone truly believes that present institutions have control over the collective consequences of The Big Economy.8

At the same time an intersecting phenomenon the Nineteenth Century never conceived strides front and center and qualifies everything. This is human power, chiefly techno-economic power, sufficient to outstrip earth’s capacity to restore itself on terms hospitable to life as we know it. It is, in fact, the growing revenge of The Great Economy (the economy of nature) as The Big Economy ravages it. At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, soil erosion was not exceeding soil formation (or at least we didn’t notice). Species extinction was not exceeding species evolution. Carbon emissions were not exceeding carbon fixation. Fish catches were not exceeding fish reproduction. Forest destruction was not exceeding forest regeneration. Freshwater was not exceeding aquifer replenishment.9 Half the world’s coastlines, the most densely populated human areas, were not imperiled. Nor was anything like half the world’s human population crowded into urban areas, with fewer chances for self-sustainability than people on the land have when times turn desperate. Thus there appear at century’s close certain words which were unknown at century’s beginning "unsustainability" "carrying capacity," "the integrity of creation," and "sustainable development." More importantly, the reality that virtually every natural system essential to The Big Economy was in a state of slow degradation at century’s end was not the reality at century’s onset. (Or, if it was, it was not recognized.) The Great Economy was not on a collision course with The Big Economy. The economy of nature was not yet effectively fighting back against the human economy, even when the latter was treating the world as game and booty and land fill. Western-based globalization had not yet reached into every nook and cranny with an economy that doesn’t ask what nature’s economy requires for its own regeneration and renewal.

The Next Turn

But where do we go from here, as the Spirit of the Twentieth Century retires to contemplate "why it has been so?" (Rauschenbusch)

One necessary change pertains to the framework within which we think, and the categories we "think with" when we "think about" things (to recall E.F. Schumacher’s distinctions). If we consider one of the subjects vital to K.C. Abraham’s concerns -- theology and theological education-the recent testimony of Juergen Moltmann becomes highly significant. Looking back on his immensely productive career, Moltmann reconsiders it all, only to conclude as follows. "If I could start all over again, I would link my theology with ecological economics. The last two centuries were dominated by economic questions; the next century will be the age of ecology, in which the organism of the earth will become the all-determining factor and will have to be taken into consideration by everyone."10

This is another way of saying what was asserted above: the crucial issues before us lie at the intersection of The Big Economy and the Great Economy. But Moltmann’s specific point is that the dialogue partner for theology shifts from philosophy and the social sciences to ecological economics, that emerging mutant subspecies hardly conceivable when the century began and still marginalized by dominant economic theory and practice. Moltmann’s point, put differently, is that theology must turn to thinking within a framework "in which the organism of the earth will become the all-determining factor?’ Just finding the categories to do so will entail a theological reimagining that can only be compared with the reconstructs of great reformations. Here is the paradigm shift asked for but not yet accomplished. It pushes questions that will not be pushed back: How do we do all our theological reflection from earth-centered praxis, with "earth" encompassing of the human economy and the economy of [the rest of] nature together? How do we shift in our understanding and articulation of faith from anthropocentric and androcentric categories and habits to biocentric and geocentric frames? How do we articulate Christian vocation as quite simply fidelity to earth, and measure all our religious and moral impulses by the moral criterion of their contribution to earth’s care and well-being? (With "earth" again understood as comprehensive of nature and society together as a single, complex community that is full of life but "under house arrest," to recall the graphic description of Boutros Boutros-Ghali at the Earth Summit of 1992).

The Plowshares Institute report, Changing The Way Seminaries Teach: Globalization and Theological Education, is not sanguine about this shift. Perhaps it will come with EATWOT and other Third World leadership, and the methodology of various liberation intersecting theologies. The Plowshares Report itself is restricted to the study of twelve North American seminaries that participated in the Globalization of Theological Education Program over five years in the early 1990s. The research conclusions nonetheless likely pertain to far more institutions than this slender dozen. One of those conclusions is that in a time when "multinational, corporate capitalism" is "one, if not the, major causal force behind global interdependence," North American seminary education has given "little theological attention.., to economics in general and global capitalism in particular."11 Furthermore, attention to ecological issues does not warrant attention at all, much less the huge agenda that sits where the dynamic, globalizing economy and planetary life systems rub raw against one another. The report documents in detail the need for a new "conceptual space" for theological education and argues for it. Yet "the organism of earth" as the "all-determining factor" is not conceived as that conceptual space. It is still missing as the framework within which the theological enterprise does what it does for people of faith.

If we did make the global economy and the economy of nature together key concerns for the conceptual space of theological studies, what would need to happen beyond Moltmann’s nomination of a new dialogue partner? If the Spirit of the Twentieth Century were to contemplate "why [the great developments of the century] have been so," where would that Spirit turn for insight and attention?

It is easier to say where such consideration has not occurred. Again, my reference point is North America and specifically the United States. While it is easy to make the case that economic globalization involves the most fundamental redesign and centralization of economic power since the Industrial Revolution, with far-reaching consequences for political power; and while it is easy to document how swiftly planetary life systems have been placed in jeopardy, it is difficult to find the major institutions of society attending to these in any but superficial ways. That is, it is difficult to find those institutions that know and show the "ecological" and "social" and "economic" connections to one another from the inside out. Neither the mass media, nor government, nor corporations help us understand. None of them explains, in Jerry Mander’s words,

that all these issues -- overcrowded cities, unusual and disturbing new weather patterns, the growth of global poverty, the lowering of wages while stock prices soar, the elimination of social services, the destruction of wildlife and wilderness, the protests of Maya Indians in Mexico -- are products of the same global policies. They are all connected to the same economic-political restructuring now under way in the name of accelerated free trade and globalization.12

About the only major force trying to uncover truth and speak it in power is the loose networks of NGOs13 that operate locally, regionally, and, by increasing measure, globally. Here something is clearly afoot. What is afoot is sometimes witting, Sometimes unwitting, backlash against the forces of globalization. What is afoot are efforts to preserve what is endangered by globalization. The largely unorganized efforts are largely "off-camera," to be sure, but they are widespread. They include local citizens’ movements and alternative institutions that are trying to create greater economic self-sufficiency, sustain livelihoods, work out agriculture appropriate to regions, preserve traditions, languages, and cultures, revive religious life, repair the moral and social fiber, resist the commodification of all things, internalize costs to earth in the price of goods, protect ecosystems, and cultivate a sense of earth as a sacred good held in common.. Churches and movements, especially those active in ecumenical networks, are significant participants here, even when their activities have not be put at the center of theological education itself. Richard Barnet and John Cavanagh, who judge this inchoate NGO uprising as presently "the only force we see that can break the global gridlock," finish their important study with a judgment about its high stakes: "The great question of our age is whether people, acting with the spirit, energy, and urgency our collective crisis requires, can develop a democratic global consciousness rooted in authentic local communities."14

"A democratic global consciousness rooted in authentic local communities" is, of course, another way to express the ancient ecumenical vision itself! The church in every place is the Church Universal and the Church Universal is legitimately represented in each place. Yet what churches face as the grave issues at the end of this century and the beginning of the next is itself the same that all other communities face: the compelling need to understand "the organism of the earth" as "the all-determining factor" that is presently endangered; the need to understand that earth-nature and society together -- is a community itself, and one without an exit; the need to understand faith now as fidelity to earth in accord with creation’s integrity as God-given.

Such counsel is only very general -- more exhortation than advice. is And our actions must be concrete. In closing, we could do worse than pose some questions on a core issue for all of us that happens also to be one of K.C. Abraham’s persistent concerns; namely sustainable development. The questions, drafted by Denis Goulet, can serve as guides for a praxis that works within a biocentric and geocentric theological frame.

1. Is sustainable authentic development compatible with a global economy?

2. Is sustainable authentic development compatible with a high material standard of living as presently defined for all human population? If limits need to be placed on growth, must there not be cutbacks in present consumption of the haves and in the future acquisitive aspirations of the have-nots?

3. Is sustainable authentic development compatible with widening global economic disparities? Does not such development presuppose, if not relative equality, at least the abolition of absolute poverty amongst the masses of the poor in the world?

4. How can strategists promoting sustainable authentic development deal with the hundreds of millions who have a vested interest in the destructive economic dynamism now prevailing in the world?16



1. Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1907), 211.

2. Ibid.. p. 211.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid., p. 212.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. The phrases, "The Big Economy" and "The Great Economy." are Wendell Berry’s.

8. For a detailed account of these and other dynamics, see Eric Hobsbawn, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991 (New York: Random House).

9. See Lester R. Brown, Hal Kane, and David Malin Roodman, Vital Signs, 1994: The Trends That Are Shaping Our Future (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Co., 1994), pp. 15-21.

10. Juergen Moltmann, "The Adventure of Theological Ideas," as cited in M. Douglas Meeks, "Juergen Moltmann’s Systematic Contributions to Theology:’ Religious Studies Review, Vol. 22, No. 2, April, 1996, p. 105.

11. David A Roozen, Alice Frazier Evans, and Robert A. Evans, Changing the Way Seminaries Teach. Globalization and Theological Education (Hartford, CT: Hartford Seminary Center for Social and Religious Research, 1996), pp. 189-190.

12. Jerry Mander, "The Dark Side of Globalization: What the Media are Missing:" The Nation, Vol. 263. No. 3, July 15/22, 1996, p. 12.

13. Non-Governmental Institutions.

14. Richard I. Barnet and John Cavanaugh, Global Dreams: Imperial Corporations and the New World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994), p. 430.

15. 1 have attempted to elaborate what such a paradigm shift would mean for theology, ethics, spirituality, and public policy in the volume, Earth Community, Earth Ethics (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, and Geneva: WCC Publishing, 1996).

16. Denis Goulet, as cited in the EWG Circular Letter # 6, March, 1996: 23.