Review: Coming Home to Earth (Cascade Books, 2016)

[1] In Coming Home to Earth, Mark Brocker, current President of the International Bonhoeffer Society (English Language Section), offers a profound reflection on a theology of the religious affections and seeks to reorient how we see and love the Earth community. Brocker argues persuasively that our time of deep ecological crisis requires not only a reorientation, but also a “paradigm shift” in Christian theological reflection with a radical revisioning of the theology of salvation (79). Written in a clear, engaging, compelling, pastoral, and, at times, deeply personal and passionate style, the book is clearly intended for a wide audience and can be recommended for use in congregations and college classes. Yet even experts in Lutheran ethics will appreciate Brocker’s theological contributions. Working with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s late ethics and Joseph Sittler’s “Theology for Earth,” the book offers a creative, insightful, and impressive synthesis of theological visions uniquely suited to our present ecological challenges, even as it leaves unresolved some tensions between the Christocentric basis of its argument and, to my mind, the theocentric impulses of its conclusions.

[2] Throughout the book, Brocker draws on his personal experiences of nature growing up in bible camps in northern Wisconsin and the Pacific Northwest, and later as a pastor and ecological activist in Oregon. He weaves these stories together with theological insights of James Gustafson, Walter Brueggemann, St. Francis, Bonaventure, and Pope Francis, among others, enriched by complementary wisdom from ecological ethicists. It is impossible to convey the richness and depth of Brocker’s discussions in this short space. I will focus instead on a main thread of the central theological argument (on my reading), namely, his rethinking of a theology of religious affections oriented toward a new way of discerning, feeling, and seeing our place in creation grounded in an “ecological conversion.”

[3] This argument weaves its way through the eight chapters of the book, each thematically related to restoring and cultivating in us our lost love for Earth. First, through the “prophetic voices” of John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Wangari Maathai, and Wendell Berry, we can begin to recognize and diagnose our loss of love for the Earth (chapter 2). Second, by drawing on the deep biblical lament tradition, Christians may share in God’s “grieving with Earth” by an “affective engagement” with the sufferings of nature (chapter 3). Then, Brocker invites us to engage this love by living out practices (ministries of reconciliation of people with damaged ecosystems; practices of ecological justice) that enact a vision of peace (shalom), identified by Walter Brueggemann as the central vision of world history in the Bible (68). Brocker then recasts this as God’s vision for a transformed Earth community in which there is no salvation for human beings apart from the well-being of the Earth community (chapter 4). The next chapter issues a “call” for a process of “ecological conversion” through “turning away from an excessive focus on the self and one’s own kind” (our ecological sin) and a “turning toward God, other human beings, and creation” (ecological conversion). Following James Rasmussen in Earth-Honoring Faith, Brocker calls this a “conversion to Earth” (chapter 6). This conversion must be realized in ethical humility and in “taking up our ecological cross” through practices that challenge our indulgent consumptive way of life, our subjugation to chronological time, and our love affair with the automobile (chapter 7). Finally, like the prodigal son coming home to his father’s welcome, we, as the “prodigal species” (156-58) returning from a self-imposed “ecological exile” (156-57) can and must “come home to Earth.” Through this process of conversion and reconnection to the love of Earth, as God loves and grieves for it, we spiritually come home to ourselves (chapter 8).

[4] Brocker writes that the “core question” guiding the project was: “What will motivate us to make the radical changes in our way of life needed to care for the Earth and thereby participate in the salvation/healing of the wounded Earth and all of its inhabitants, both human and nonhuman?” (13) Human beings will continue to rush pell-mell into ecological disaster unless there can be a radical conversion of the heart to love of the earth and all its inhabitants but one that also addresses the problem of a broadened concept of sin, our “ecological sin.” At the same time, through this “conversion to earth,” we will come home to ourselves. In a nutshell, the roots of the ecological crisis lie in Luther’s problem of the human heart as curved in on itself (incurvatus in se), or what Augustine identified as the misdirection of our loves, causing us to lose an awareness of God’s sacramental presence “in, with, and under the stuff of life,” also affirmed by Luther (57).

[5] Taking as his “hinge verse” Genesis 1:31, “God saw everything God had made, and indeed, it was very good” (13; 53ff.), Brocker convincingly calls for the recognition of a Third Great Commandment, “You shall love the creation” (41), alongside love of God and love of neighbor. Brocker sees this as necessary for our time and already deeply rooted in the biblical and Christian tradition and at the core of the Gospel message. Correlative to this, Broker calls for a deepening of Bonhoeffer’s understanding of conversion (metanoia) as “ecological conversion” (112-115). Brocker wants us to rethink the theological problem of sin and grace as one of making it possible for human beings to see the community of earth – Earth and all its inhabitants – anew, as God sees it, as “precious in God’s sight” (52), and as the object of God’s reconciling grace achieved in the reality of Christ (Bonhoeffer). “Our love for our Earth needs to be deeply rooted in God’s love for Earth. Earth is God’s home as well as our home. Indeed, our four core values—love of God, love of neighbor, love of self, and love of Earth—are deeply rooted in God’s love.” (174).

[6] At the risk of oversimplifying, I see Brocker’s core argument as making three fundamental moves. First, Brocker contends this demands a “paradigm shift” in salvation theology that extends insights from Bonhoeffer’s Ethics and Letters and Papers from Prison. Here is where theological ethicists, especially Lutheran, will find an argument worthy of much attention. In a deeply personal “Introduction,” Brocker tells the story of his own upbringing at Lutheran bible camps where he grew up with a “getting-to-heaven anxiety,” and later entering college “burdened” with bad theology that saw salvation as an individual affair in which belief in Jesus Christ would lead to a better life beyond sin and death and this fallen world. In this “redemption myth,” God’s individual reconciliation with the believer through Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection had nothing to do with God’s reconciliation with creation itself through the Cross, despite central passages in the Gospels and Paul’s letters to the contrary. An encounter with writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a Religion class upended this theology. For Bonhoeffer, God has reconciled the world to Godself through the person of Jesus Christ and this means conforming to Christ’s reality as the “human being for others” such that being human entails being-in-community. Our responsible action depends on conformation to this new reality and, in turn, on seeing (discerning) the world in the same way as God (Christ) sees reality. The divine act of reconciliation requires an ethic of radical “this-worldliness” (115), acting for the world as Christ did. Ethics based on human reason “abstracts” from the ultima ratio of Christ’s reconciling action. “Free responsible action” means acting in a way that is radically appropriate to the concrete situation and the needs of others, conforming to how Christ sees and acts in the world. Quoting Bonhoeffer, Brocker writes: “Knowing that we and the whole world are loved by God, we are freed and called ‘to actually discern what the will of God may be, what might be right in a given situation, what may please God; for one must, of course, live and act concretely. Intellect, cognitive ability, and attentive perception of the context come into play here.’” (51). Ethics is a matter of seeing, feeling, and loving the others as Christ does. Brocker wants to take Bonhoeffer seriously: If, as Bonhoeffer shows, there can be no salvation apart from the world, then “There is no salvation apart from the Earth” (12). Brocker maintains that Bonhoeffer’s own understanding of responsibility suffered from its own “abstract” understanding of this newly reconciled community: it ignored the wider community, the whole of Earth community. While attentive to the in extremis crisis of his time (Nazi Germany), Bonhoeffer’s overlooking nonhuman others does not respond to the radical needs of our time (the ecological crisis). While Bonhoeffer supplies a path, a “radical concept of conversion” to a this-worldliness, “it is not radical enough for us today.” Still, Brocker contends, the “ecological trajectory of his vision of the community of God, human beings, and all creatures help open us up to a concept of conversion that embraces the whole Earth community and the rest of creation … Existence for others includes existence for the whole Earth community” (115; cf. 61-63).

[7] At this juncture, Brocker needs a theological warrant to make the leap from Bonhoeffer’s intra-human portrayal of Christ’s being for others to the whole Earth community. This is his second key move: Brocker finds this warrant in Bonaventure’s Franciscan and Augustinian theological notion of “contuition” (54). Contuition, Brocker explains, is a concept of seeing the Earth’s “inhabitants as God sees them—that is as they really are,” echoing Bonhoeffer’s idea that correct ethical action depends on vision, seeing things as God (or God reconciled to humanity/creation) sees them. In “contuition”, the believer sees God’s presence in all creatures: every creature and life process–even death and sacrifice–is reconciled to God, and “all creatures are precious in the sight of God” (55), as St. Francis taught. Brocker connects this vision with that of Joseph Sittler’s 1964 sermon “The Care of the Earth,” where Sittler explicitly ties the enjoyment of creation to the Augustinian distinction between the enjoyment vs. instrumental uses of things, arguing that proper use of things is based on their proper enjoyment, glorifying “God’s handiwork” in the response of joy (55).

[8] In his third important move, Brocker turns to the theocentric ethics of James Gustafson (89-91). Gustafson lays out a typology of five views on how human beings are to relate to nature: despotism, dominion, stewardship, subordination, and participation. Brocker embraces Gustafson’s theological framework of “participation” as the preferred view (citing Gustafson): “‘Human beings participate in the patterns and processes of interdependence of life in the world.’ God is the ultimate power who works through these processes of interdependence …. A participatory approach to ecological ethics fits well with an Earth-embracing paradigm of salvation.” (90)

[9] Indeed, this approach does fit well. It also seems to be new wine that bursts the old wineskins of Bonhoeffer’s Christocentric ethics, which demands no sources for ethics other than the reality of Christ and has a very personalistic focus. One of the more beautiful, arresting, and central images of the book is Brocker’s portrayal of salmon swimming upstream – returning home – to spawn. In the process, salmon expend their life energy, sacrificing themselves to the larger processes of interdependence of life. For life to be, life must sacrifice itself and give way to new life. Human beings, a “prodigal species,” not recognizing limits and the integrity of the life processes, have turned their affections away from the good of the Earth community as a whole. Brocker has this insight right, but does it not push beyond Bonhoeffer’s Christocentric ethics toward a theocentric ethics as the way to escape the anthropocentricism of the bad theology of other-worldly salvation?

Michael A. Johnson

Michael A. Johnson studied religious ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity school. Since 2007, he has been an adjunct faculty member in the Religion Department at Concordia College, Moorhead, MN, where he teaches courses in religion, theology, Christian ethics, and environmental ethics.