Lutheran Sacramental Imagination

[1] The purpose of the prior essay, “Climate Change as a Perfect Moral Storm,” was to set the stage for Lutheran response to the moral difficulty surrounding climate change. Here is how that will go: first a review, summarized as “Anthropocene responsibility”; next, an account of Reformation freedom and its promise for Anthropocene ethics; and last, after some time with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the retrieval of two themes for the needed ethic—sacramental imagination and species sin. (There are numerous other themes but length precludes treating them.)

Anthropocene responsibility

[2] The key assumptions that frame this presentation follow. Some describe our time, with the expectation that geologists will soon hammer in a “golden spike” to mark the advent of the Anthropocene. Others set out terms for re-conceptualizing human responsibility.

[3] The salient mark of the Holocene, host to all human civilizations to date, has been a relatively stable climate. The tattoo of the Anthropocene is human-induced changes in core planetary processes. One result is climate volatility.

[4] Anthropogenic change sufficient to alter the planet has been driven by en masse use of stored energy in the form of fossil fuels.

[5] Though largely ignored to date, the key parameters for all energy use are set by the planet’s climate-energy system (the way in which Earth regulates solar energy).

[6] Climate injustice is most severely visited upon populations who have contributed least to it.

[7] Because current human responsibility is not meted out in ways that match the reach of human action (“cumulatively across generational time, aggregately through ecological systems, and nonintentionally over evolutionary futures”—W. Jenkins); and because severe climate injustice is already a reality, the question becomes: What changes in the moral universe expand human responsibility so as to align with human impacts?

[8] Premises for Anthropocene responsibility include these. (a) “Planetary health is primary, human well-being is derivative.” (Thomas Berry) Both biotic and abiotic worlds have legal and moral standing. (b) “The first law of economics is the preservation of nature’s economy.” (Thomas Berry) (c) The basic unit of human survival is not human society; it is planetary nature comprehensively. (d) Ours is a civilizational crisis that entails an environmental one: How do we fit into a climate-changing planet so as to transition from industrial-technological civilization to ecological-technological civilization?

[9] Given the inadequacy of inherited guidelines, norms, and cosmologies for the Anthropocene, the question is whether reform-rooted communities can drive the needed creativity. The task is to adapt traditions to respond to new and/or overwhelming challenges.

[10] For the Anthropocene, Lutheran ethics is a continuous reformation project. A reforming dynamic is a way of living the faith itself.

Reformation promise

[11] We live downstream from all that has gone before. Our lives are braided with the ancestors, together with all the rest that stardust has made possible.

[12] We live upstream from all that follows. In an age dominated by cumulative human presence and power, that is everything short of earthquakes and volcanoes. Even the seas change.

[13] Because in many ways our upstream presence is destructive of planetary flourishing downstream, a comprehensive reformation is mandated.

[14] But what does that mean?

[15] First, it assumes that ours is an inflection point in history. This includes natural history. Constraints may be grave—not everything that must be faced can be changed. Yet opportunities are numerous—how many people get a chance to change civilization? Second, this historical moment invites the return of the Protestant Reformation’s most salient feature; namely, faith-rooted creative freedom in a chaotic time of civilizational transition.

[16] The backdrop for this freedom is the conviction that the Reformation was a contemporary dynamic before it was an historical deposit, though we are the heirs of both. The dynamic gave rise to the deposit. Our current manner of theology may be much the same as the Reformers’ but if so, it is similar in the way Joseph Sittler said: “By theology we mean not only a having but a doing – not only an accumulated tradition, but a present task which must be done on the playing field of each generation in actual life.”[1] Sittler is channeling Luther here. Or, to put the matter in the way Bonhoeffer did: “Who is Jesus Christ, for us, today?” (Emphasis mine.) 7+ billion people on a planet in jeopardy at their hands obviously do not face the same issues 500 years downwind from the 15th c. Reformation, so we will not have the same answers, either. That is both the nature of a reformed Reformation ethic and the need for it. There is a “gospel for every present.”[1]

[17] The gospel for Luther’s present was to throw off ecclesial systems of bondage and offer creative reform that resisted the corruption of the church and oppression of the poor; that valued and empowered the laity in their workaday lives; that damned the sale of indulgences and the papacy’s control of people’s lives through fear of condemnation and the saving power of righteous works; and that undermined the overweening confidence in reason and free will of scholastic theology. By contrast, the gospel for our present is to rally the powers of faith for the long, hard transition from the unsustainable way of life of industrial-technological civilization to a durable future in ecological-technological civilization; to do so amid climate volatility; and to create systems of human responsibility that, contrasted with current morality and standard legal systems, match human influence on the planet’s core processes.

[18] To glimpse the promise of Reformation freedom for moral creativity and a gospel for our present, here’s one account of what the Reformers did.

[19] With “the Protestant principle”[2] of prophetic criticism in the name of the Gospel, the Reformers were bold in their rendering of Scripture, bold in their rendering of tradition, and indefatigable in their efforts to create newly formed consciences and communities. They urged newborn protesters—“protest-ants”—to re-read Scripture and tradition through different lenses and write new confessions and catechisms they would stake their lives on. They encouraged clergy to abandon some of their ordination vows (celibacy, most notably). They drastically revised the number and meaning of the sacraments, they re-crafted liturgy, and they composed stirring new hymns and songs, some of them from the popular music of the day. (“Why should the devil get all the good tunes?” Luther asked as he borrowed popular Renaissance ditties for new hymns.) Not least, they democratized the church in startling ways and gave it a new, popular, vernacular language, one replacing its long-official tongue. Furthermore, they unleashed the laity to religiously valorize their own daily experience so as to take responsibility for their lives, rituals, neighbors, theology, work and conscience. They even chose a controversial biblical theme—the justification of the ungodly—as the Gospel truth.

[20] They also trusted that the Gospel proclaimed an inexhaustible grace sufficient to sustain them in protracted struggle. While the moral life is complex and, in a “fallen” world, “dirty” hands are inevitable, the grace of God in Jesus Christ and the Spirit promised both pardon and power for courage, daring, and indeterminate responsibility.

[21] Through it all, the Reformers trusted that the ancient texts might, in the Spirit, yield yet more light when a receptive community reads them afresh in a changing world. They were not disappointed.[3]

[22] Nor did they shrink from political, economic and social innovation. Luther crafted new institutions for Wittenberg as Calvin did for Geneva, institutions that live to this day. The Anabaptists explicitly formed local “anticipatory communities,” a way of life intended to incarnate the Kingdom come in the life of a people in their home neighborhoods and carried out with their own assets and wisdom. They were locavores long before the locavores.

[23] The courage expressed in all this reform, whether Lutheran, Reformed, or Anabaptist, often landed the reformers in serious trouble, sometimes with one another. We need not follow Luther here, take on an alias and a disguise (Junker Georg), and go into hiding because a price has been put on our heads. Thankfully, civil liberty is more generous in our context than his. Nonetheless, we should not rule out civil disobedience and status confessionis where present and future lives and wellbeing are at stake. The Reformation was all about Spirited resistance, reform and resilience.[4]

[24] Not that this courage and transformation have been the Reformers’ experience alone. Believers in other times have encountered a new Word from God and experienced new power in the Spirit, not least in the liberative moments of 20th c. Black theology, feminist and womanist theology, GLBTQ theology, Latin American and mujerista liberation theology, and now eco-theology drawing from all these; here, too, a new interpretation of Scripture, tradition, conscience, and social good not only was needed, it was joyfully discovered.

[25] ​Reformation and transformation require “revolutionary patience” (Cornel West). “The fierce urgency of now” (Martin Luther King) is the meaning of “revolutionary.” “Patience” is less a reference to time than to “stick-to-it-iveness,” keeping on whatever the odds, celebrating small victories as well as large, and giving up on no one. (Think Nelson Mandela.)

[26] Sometimes reformation is the work of generations. When slavery, for example, was still cemented in the social, moral and legal order, an interpretation of Scripture and tradition different from the Bible’s steady support of slavery and eighteen centuries of Christian practice of it had to be wrestled to the ground. A non-enslaving Gospel had to worm its way into a resistant church and society. It was the slow boring of hard boards. That non-enslaving Gospel did eventually emerge, though at great cost. Witness “Lincoln” (the movie) and the soul-deep sorrow of the Civil War.

[27] If women, to cite a second example, are no longer legally, morally, and socially the property of male-headed households, but are co-equal with men; and if they, too, might be called as clergy in full standing into a truly welcoming church, an interpretation of Scripture, tradition, and conscience different from most of Scripture’s own assumptions about women and family, together with Christian tradition’s dominant practices in most every land, had to be wrested from these same, solid sources. A non-discriminating and non-berating Gospel of gender equality had to find its way among people of faith. It did. It was a reformation.

[28] So, too, a non-discriminating and non-berating Gospel had to struggle to the surface in cases of divorce and re-marriage; and now in cases of gay and lesbian clergy and same-sex marriage, for those John Bennett referred to as recently as the 1970s as “the last minority still persecuted by the church.”[5]

[29] Is ours not another moment of Reformation freedom? In the same 1975 work, The Radical Imperative, Bennett addressed the economy. He called for a “return to economic issues as having central importance for Christian ethics,”[6] and pointed especially to what he calls “the weaknesses of capitalism,” not least among them the fact that “it allows enormous aggregates of private economic power from private economic motives and with the use of great private resources to thwart the efforts of public bodies to regulate them.”[7] Should you need evidence, consult New York Times reporter Gretchen Morgenson’s meticulous account, Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed, and Corruption Created the Worst Financial Crisis of our Time (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2012) or Lutheran ethicist Cynthia Moe-Lobeda’s recent volume, Resisting Structural Evil: Love as Economic and Ecological Vocation (Augsburg Fortress, 2013).

[30] Moe-Lobeda includes what Bennett could not and Morgenson does not. Namely, the big economy of capitalism is fundamentally at odds with the great economy of nature of which it is part, a presently incompatible part. With industrial capitalism, and industrial socialism before it, economic time outstrips biological time. That is a disastrous course. Human economic time outstripping nature’s regenerative time is the very definition of a future that is neither durable nor resilient. While Bennett’s and Morgenson’s attention is to that matter where capitalism has always foundered—the social justice question, with mass impoverishment accompanying mass wealth—now to social injustice is added eco-injustice and further impoverishment—biodiversity loss and a diminished planet. Nature’s economy reels under the impact of the human economy and gets its revenge by “breaking the threads of its operations.”[8]

[31] Still, this description only begins the freedom project before us. I add Bonhoeffer’s unwitting premonitions of the Anthropocene as he voices his own Reformation question, “What keeps gnawing at me is the question, what is Christianity, or who is Christ actually for us today?”[9] Or, in another letter, “The question is Christ and the world that has come of age.”[10] The point of the long sidebar on Bonhoeffer is to get a good feel for how far the reformation of faith and ethics may need to go in the Anthropocene. After time with Bonhoeffer we will turn to sacramentalism and species sin as a way to begin that journey.

Bonhoeffer and the Anthropocene

[32] A little-known address, “The Right to Self-Assertion,” was given at the College of Technology in Berlin in 1932. There Bonhoeffer argues that European-American civilization commands a war-and-industry identity. “The era of the machine” and wars, or “wars and factories,” are the West’s chief means of collective assertion and problem-solving.[11]

[33] The source of this aggressive identity is found, he says, in battles “to master nature, fight against it, to force it to [Western human] service.” This assertive human mastery over nature is no less than “the fundamental theme of European-American history.”[12] It leaves Western civilization fragmented from the rest of nature in its core consciousness.

[34] Ten years later Bonhoeffer continues, now in an effort to write an ethic for the post-war period. Here, in “Heritage and Decay,” a portion of the work-in-progress, Ethics, and dated 1941-42, he describes the kind of technology that emerged in the modern West. It is no longer essentially “a matter of handicraft” that, in other contexts, served “religion, royalty, culture, and people’s daily needs.” Modern technology has freed itself so that its “essence is not service but mastery, mastery over nature. A wholly new spirit has produced it, the spirit of violent subjugation of nature to thinking and experimenting human beings…It has its own soul; its symbol is the machine, the embodiment of violation and exploitation of nature….The benefits of technology pale beside its demonic powers.”[13]

[35] Later, in prison, Bonhoeffer picks up the 1932 and 1941-42 theme again, this time for a new work. Excited about his insights on an emerging era, he abruptly pauses in his work on Ethics for an undertaking that must rethink everything, the fundamental base points of Christian faith included. Unfortunately, only the outline survives. The remainder was apparently the victim of his own enthusiasm; the hand-written manuscript was one of the few possessions he took with him to the Gestapo prison where it was lost in the chaos of the final year of the war.

[36] The new work’s outline, while repeating the 1932 and 1941-42 theme, is now tied to prison insights on the “world come of age.” (More on that shortly.) Bonhoeffer’s summary is so compact that I cite it in full:

…[The West’s] goal is to be independent of nature. Nature used to be conquered by the soul; with us it is conquered through technological organization of all kinds. What is unmediated for us, what is given, is no longer nature but organization. But with this protection from the menace of nature, a new threat to life is created in turn, namely, through organization itself. Now the power of the soul is lacking! The human being is thrown back on his own resources. He has learned to cope with everything except himself. He can insure himself against everything but other human beings. In the end it all comes down to the human being.[14]

[37] With the West’s aim to be independent of nature and substitute the built environment (“organization”) as our own tailored cosmos and preferred habitat; and with everything now, in a world of greatly increased human knowledge and power, depending upon humankind; and with this new world lacking the “spiritual force” for responsibly handling this growing technological and organizational power affecting all nature, the theological-ethical question comes to this: how to “claim Christ for a world coming of age.” That is, how do we forge a viable Christian faith and ethic of responsibility for an epoch of unprecedented power across the whole of earthly life? This becomes Bonhoeffer’s prison preoccupation. It reaches beyond his analysis in Ethics,[15] even though the goal there was also a viable ethic of responsible action (for the post-war world).

[38] His new line of thought is an uncanny intimation of Anthropocene moral reality: Everything turns on collective human power and responsibility, the very power that has effected an ocean-spanning, Euro-American civilization fundamentally fractured from nature in its consciousness, cosmology, and day-to-day life. Moreover, this war-and-industry civilization discovers that its own spiritual-moral resources for addressing its alienated powers are found wanting. If Bonhoeffer is to complete the Ethics—that is his desire, he writes in 1943—it will not be for post-war peace and German Protestant reconstruction only; it will be for a new historical and civilizational epoch marked by expanded human powers.

[39] In this setting, “world come of age,” or “coming of age,[16] has descriptive power that Bonhoeffer latches on to and keeps. Yet it cannot be what, at first blush, it would seem to be—a reference to moral maturity. Bonhoeffer is sitting in prison because the very nation that was teacher to the world in all things from philosophy and theology to science, medicine, and literature has gone mad. “World come of age” refers instead to moral accountability and responsibility. The person who has come of age, typically at 18 or 21, is responsible for his or her actions, whether mature or not. Parents, or God, are no longer responsible for the child turned adult.

[40] The phrase, however, is not “person come of age,” it is “world come of age.” Coming of age has gone global. It has done so in an epoch in which human beings collectively are accountable for heightened human knowledge and power that affects “the whole of earthly life” (a phrase from Ethics). For better and worse, nature is increasingly “organized” in accord with sovereign human design.

[41] This greatly—and gravely—expanded knowledge and power is epistemological and theological as well as moral. It need not posit God as necessary to advancing either knowledge or power, and does not turn to a parental God for a bail-out when that knowledge and those powers fail, as they do and will. Here resides Bonhoeffer’s critique of religion. The God of this Reformation moment will not be God as a working hypothesis, the God-of-the-gaps. Nor will this be the rescuer God, God as deus ex machina. Not only can responsible persons get along quite well without these “Gods,” but turning to them is a moral cop-out. The God-of-the-gaps and the rescuer God belong to the dysfunctional religion of an earlier consciousness and era. In an epoch we now recognize as an era of planet-changing Anthropocene power, “claiming Christ” for “a world-come-of-age,” or answering the question, “Who is Jesus Christ, for us, today,” will need to take some other course. It will confront human power and knowledge so as to find God in what we do know, rather than in what we don’t, and in problems that are solved, rather than only when and where we are vexed. Moral accountability and confession of sins will address the sins of our strengths and powers, rather than our weaknesses only. If God and standing before God in the Anthropocene cannot be located at the heart of human power, accountability, accomplishment and failure, then God and morality are pushed to the far margins of what counts for the life of the world.

[42] Can more be said about the fate of faith and God in the Anthropocene, given the direction of Bonhoeffer’s thoughts?

[43] The various approaches Bonhoeffer tries in Ethics, none of which was ever completed to his satisfaction, may register more than his abrupt pause for the new work seems to indicate. Of particular note is the late 1940 sketch of “Natural Life.” The very first sentence is: “The concept of the natural has fallen into disrepute in Protestant ethics.”[17] A blistering critique of “the elimination of the category of the natural from Protestant thought”[18] then follows before a turn to the natural as the substantive basis for essential elements of an ethic: a notion of justice, human rights and the freedom of bodily life, natural rights and the life of the spirit, etc.[19] Given his thesis about the nature-alienated origins of the world-shaping powers that have brought a new epoch with them, and given his sense of the spiritual and moral ineptitude that attends these aggressive powers, where Bonhoeffer might have gone with “the natural” as the basis for reconstructed and extended responsibility is a provocative, if necessarily open, question.[20]

[44] One thing is certain. Whatever the course of human responsibility is, and Whoever its God in a world-coming-of-age, that course and God will be Earth-honoring. Bonhoeffer will have nothing whatsoever to do with other-worldly faith, even in a time of deep human trouble, a time of “trembling hands,” “clenched teeth,”[21] and Earth’s “distress,”[22] as well as a time when he must personally reckon with his family’s distress and his own death. Whether in the depths of human-generated crises, or atop accomplishments, the prayer of those who rightly pray the first petition of the Lord’s Prayer for the coming of God’s kingdom on Earth is a prayer “of the most profound solidarity with the world” in which the church swears “oaths of fealty to the Earth.”[23] Fidelity to God is fidelity to Earth for Bonhoeffer and is a faith, incidentally, that was commensurate with science’s story of evolution as he understood that.

[45] There is more. While as a Barthian, Bonhoeffer was suspicious of natural theology, he, like Luther, is emphatic about our nature as earth creatures whose very essence is to be that and no more. In his exegesis of Genesis 1-3, he writes that,

Even Darwin and Feuerbach could not use stronger language than is used here. Humankind is derived from a piece of earth. Its bond with the earth belongs to its essential being. The ‘earth is its mother’; it comes out of her womb.”[24] This is a continuation of his earlier, equally emphatic, presentation on the foundations of Christian ethics (1929): “It is only through the depths of earth that the window of eternity opens itself up to us. . . . An ancient and profound old legend tells us about the giant Antaeus, who was stronger than all the men of the world. No one could defeat him until during one battle his adversary lifted him up off the ground; whereupon the giant lost the power that had flowed into him only from his contact with the earth. Those who would abandon the earth, who would flee the crisis of the present, will lose all the power still sustaining them by means of eternal, mysterious powers. The earth remains our mother just as God remains our father, and only those who remain true to the mother are placed by her into the father’s arms. Earth and its distress—that is the Christian’s Song of Songs.[25]

Evidently we will only save that which we recognize as our own being—Earth. Alienated from Earth, our powers turn destructive.

[46] But back to the 1932 address. The battle is not only against nature, but “against other human beings.” “In the most essential sense his life means ‘killing,’” Bonhoeffer says bluntly of the European.[26] Western civilization, fragmented from the rest of nature in its core consciousness, destroys natural and human communities together in an exercise of collective power with few spiritual and moral constraints. Needless to say, Bonhoeffer rejects this kind of collective assertion and identity. His fascination with Gandhi at this time will continue as he (Bonhoeffer) grows convinced of the exhaustion of a viable European-American spirituality, ethics, and politics for an age that, for us, has evolved as the Anthropocene.

[47] This early analysis is deepened in Ethics where not only German fascism but the Enlightenment tradition itself comes under critique. Bonhoeffer, ever the Prussian conservative, is deeply suspicious of the hubris exhibited “when big words are spoken about a new humanity, of a new world, a new society that will be created, and all this newness consists only in the annihilation of existing life.”[27] The lethal theme in this pretense is mastery that knows no limits as undertaken by autonomous humans in the name of freedom without constraint.[28] Thus do we experience “the twinning of freedom and terror,” “the upsurge of a terrible godlessness in human presumptions of god-likeness,”[29] the deification of humans who end up despising those who do not conform to their image. Ways of life that acknowledge no limits as they wield heightened human power are the backdrop for what happens next: the theologian working on Ethics as his magnum opus must undertake a new departure. Even the present war, and the Great War before it, are symptomatic of a deeper, broader civilizational crisis from which Christianity is not exempt. The new era requires, then, a deeper, even more exacting, rethinking of faith and life than Ethics has thus far provided. In short, the theological-moral journey of “claiming Christ for a world-come-of-age” moves, as it were, from a stock taking of the modern world into no less than a “Taking Stock of Christianity” itself (the first chapter of the new work). “What is Christian Faith, really?” Bonhoeffer asks (the second chapter).

[48] Tellingly, “Taking Stock” begins with the insight of a deeply altered human presence—“the coming of age of the human being”—while “What is Christian Faith, really?” moves in response to the very heart of faith, God.

[49] The logic is clear. Bonhoeffer has concluded that world-come-of-age powers lack a viable faith and ethic to guide them (“the power of the soul is lacking”). He has also concluded that the God who is the working hypothesis, the “stopgap for our embarrassments,” in short, the God of “religion,”[30] has been rendered “superfluous” in a world-come-of-age. So after a sub-section that links the two subjects to one another, “Worldliness and God,” Bonhoeffer must ask straightforwardly, “Who is God?” In this new epoch, our experience of God will not be that of a “religious” relationship to God as some “highest, most powerful, and best being imaginable.” Rather, our relationship to the transcendent is a life in “being-there-for-others,” which is participation in the very being of Jesus, “the [Mensch] for others.” “The transcendent is not the infinite, unattainable tasks, but the neighbor within reach in any given situation. God in human form! …The human being living out of the transcendent.”[31] A this-worldly life, a life of “Earth and its distress” as the “Christian Song of Songs,” is life that experiences transcendent powers. The worldly finite bears the infinite.

[50] For persons of Protestant faith, living out of the transcendent amid utterly this-worldly relationships in a new epoch next moves, again of logical necessity, to reinterpreting the biblical base points of theology—“creation, fall, reconciliation, repentance, faith, vita nova, last things.”[32] Bonhoeffer, the systematic theologian, could not entertain matters more foundational than these.

[51] How far he will go in reinterpreting the faith is signaled in a further sub-section that begins, “What do we really believe?” “I mean, believe in such a way that our lives depend on it?” He criticizes Barth and the Confessing Church for, in effect, hiding behind “the faith of the Church’” and the question of what we should believe. That is not sufficiently radical for the new epoch. Don’t start with, say, the Apostles Creed, to ask what we “must” believe. Rather, what do we “really believe” such that we’d stake our existence on it. What way of life and meaning belong to the powers we wield in the world we have?

[52] Put differently, as they are in the letter of 30 April, a “religious a priori” in human beings can no longer be assumed. While that a priori has been foundational to “nineteen hundred years of Christian preaching and theology,” it may only be “a historically conditioned and transitory form of human expression.” A different age and culture, possessed of a different epistemology, cosmology and consciousness [read: world-come-of-age], might well show that “the foundations are being pulled out from under all that ‘Christianity’ has previously been for us…”[33] The conclusion is that the task of Ethics—to construct a comprehensive ethic of responsible action—must, even for its own sake, now push reform beyond Bonhoeffer’s own forays in the Ethics manuscripts to date. He must revisit, and renew, the most essential creedal elements of the faith, together with its practices. (“What does a church, a congregation, a sermon, a liturgy, a Christian life, mean in a religionless world?“ Bonhoeffer asks in the same letter.)[34]

[53] These are not questions of despair or desperation for Bonhoeffer. His daily practice of devotion does not flag and he finds his new insights exhilarating. These questions simply belong to the relentless honesty that follows from insight into the profound changes and challenges posed by a new epoch.

[54] Another Bonhoeffer essay, this one on the lessons learned in ten years of resisting The Third Reich, offers yet another premonition of Anthropocene reality. Here the attention is less the accurate description of the new era than it is the existential feel of living at a terrible moment of history. Here there are real overtones of loss and longing, if not despair.

[55] In that Christmas gift to fellow resisters, one paragraph is entitled “Without Ground under One’s Feet.” Bonhoeffer first asks whether there has ever been a people in history who felt so little solid ground under their feet [as the resisters have], and to whom “every possible alternative open to them at the time” seemed “equally unbearable, senseless, and contrary to life?”[35] But after registering the resisters’ experience of little ground and no good alternative, he asks whether this is their experience only, “Or rather, facing a great historical turning point, and precisely because something genuinely new was coming to be that did not fit with the existing alternatives, did the responsible thinkers of another generation ever feel differently than we do today?”[36]

[56] The very next paragraph is “Who Stands Firm?” There every respected ethical alternative is emptied of authority by its failure to meet the evil of German fascism. In a brilliant parsing of all the moral options—the ethics of reason, duty, conscience, freedom, virtuousness, even fanaticism—Bonhoeffer exposes their flaws. None provided sufficient grounds for effective responsibility. While this failure of the moral options may dovetail with Bonhoeffer’s analysis of a world coming of age and a need to rethink Christian faith in every way, the emphasis lands on the experience of patriotic resisters who must live with the moral failure of their own German heritage and the demonstrated inadequacy of the respected moralities of their own culture.

[57] Small wonder, then, that a later paragraph asks, “Are We Still of Any Use?” It finishes with this question: “Will our inner strength to resist what has been forced on us have remained strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves blunt enough, to find our way back to simplicity and honesty?”[37] Small wonder, too, that the very last paragraph, “The View from Below,” finds Bonhoeffer in quest of a different angle of vision and starting point. While it is anchored in the experience of resistance, it takes the resisters beyond their own cherished, but deeply flawed, culture and heritage. In their quest for another Germany, Bonhoeffer finds it a matter of “incomparable value” that the resisters have “for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed and reviled, in short from the perspective of the suffering.” “Personal suffering is a more useful key” and “a more fruitful principle,” it turns out, “than personal happiness.” At least it is so “for exploring the meaning of the world in contemplation and action.”[38]

[58] “More fruitful” may be a synonym for “more truthful.” The view “from below” gives a more truthful account of how the stories we live by and the systems that bind us together go dreadfully wrong. The unexpected gift of this perspective is to see the fault lines of the world in ways willfully avoided in the ranks of the privileged. Truth available from below is truth obscured or resisted elsewhere. To gather it in is to make possible what is otherwise impossible; namely, “to do justice to life in all its dimensions.”[39] Building up responsibility at a “great turning point in history” will best proceed, will “more fruitfully” proceed, from the places where creation groans in travail.

[59] In summary, we know what provoked Bonhoeffer to turn to ethics as his magnum opus, rather than systematic theology. It was his conviction that the moral grounds of modernity in the West were effectively spent. What seems to have happened in his prison insights on human power and a world come of age is that he sensed even his own efforts at a reconstructed ethic were inadequate. The goal—an ethic of responsible action—was correct. It remains. The emerging new epoch of human power was making clear, however, that a more fundamental theological and moral reform was needed. Ethics could not proceed until the new “Taking Stock” was completed.

[60] We must leave Bonhoeffer here. His premonitions of Anthropocene reality are these. 1) An aggressive Western war-and-industry identity alienated from nature and fueled by mastery that knows no limits as undertaken by autonomous humans in the name of freedom without constraint (to repeat our earlier formulation) has accompanied, even driven, gravely expanded human knowledge and power. 2) The reach of this human knowledge and power and its impact upon all earthly life has strained our ethical concepts to the breaking point. This sets in motion the need to reconceive responsibility itself. 3) There is no dialing back of history to some previous age, including the age of a religious a priori and the God of religion. For Christians, this means the constructive work entails no less than deep interrogation of faith’s essential base points—Who is God? What do we really believe such that we would stake our lives on it? Who is Jesus Christ for us today when “today” is another epoch, even a non-analogous one? How to claim Christ for a world-come-of-age is the venture in front of us. 4) In an epoch where “everything depends on humankind,” the constructive work of faith and the experience of Jesus Christ will be this-worldly and Earth-honoring. In a world-come-of-age, transcendence, indeed God, is “the beyond in the midst of life.”[40]

[61] I turn next to the promised Reformation themes in the hope that they might continue Bonhoeffer’s quest to claim Christ, rather than self-idolizing humankind, for a world of geophysical human power. Sacramental imagination is first.

Sacramental imagination

[62] Luther, in a letter to Zwingli on the real presence of Jesus Christ in the sacrament, writes that “God is as present in your cabbage soup as in the sacrament. The difference is that God is hidden in the soup and revealed in the sacrament.” Remember that the next time you sip soup, just as you remember Luther’s advice as you wash before the meal: “When you rinse your face, remember your baptism.” (Incidentally, Luther would no doubt have chuckled at the fun had in naming the next hurricanes after climate change deniers—Hurricane Bachmann, Superstorm Limbaugh, Storm Surge Boehner, etc.)

[63] Luther’s imagination is sacramental. The entire universe is alive with the presence and power of God in Jesus and the Spirit. All material reality is sacred, ourselves, soup, and rinse water included. As God’s abode and handiwork, creation is inherently worthy of reverence. (“Worthy of reverence” defines “sacred.”)

[64] Let me picture this for you. For Lutheran artist Kristen Gilje, the human is fully part of the Tree of Life and the vision of re-newed Earth in Rev. 22. She describes her work this way: “My artistic mission is to communicate the sacred presence of God in all creation, by connecting the rhythms, stories and images nature has to offer with liturgical rites and rituals through art.” That’s a precise statement of Lutheran sacramental imagination.




[66] I find this triptych[41] the perfect icon for human presence in the Anthropocene. We are melded with the great Tree of Life yet, unlike most of hominid history, we are now a huge presence in the Tree, not the miniscule one of 95% of human history, when we were hunter-gatherers and no more than a branch in the great Tree. At the same time, life is vibrant in and around the Tree, with waters flowing from the Throne of God. Human presence for Gilje is a presence in which our power fits in, rather than masters or attempts to control. Human presence and power is part of the sacred itself. The waters that flow from the throne of God aren’t dammed.

[67] Sacramentalism’s great theme is that life is an unmerited gift of God—it’s sheer grace—and nature is the medium of that grace. We do not earn it, we did not create it, even a single blade of grass, though we can and do destroy it (think of species extinction). Life is a sacred trust.

[68] This sacred trust contrasts with the utterly possessive ethic that defines our modern relationship to other-than-human nature. Over more than 250 years, since the Industrial Revolution, nature has been placed over against us as object, and valued for human ends alone. For all practical purposes, this renders nature devoid of sanctity. The sacred is leeched from nature when nature’s prized form is commodities for market exchange. The numinous vanishes and “the shine of the holy” (Sittler) disappears when creation is means-only.

[69] Deep down, the collective self-idolizing ethic that Bonhoeffer found “twinning freedom and terror” (Elshtain’s phrase) takes the form of a master/slave ethic. With us as masters, exercising market freedom, the rest of nature is slave, subject to our whims (terror). And whatever slaves are, they are not sacred to the slaveholder, or worthy of rights and duties that bind the slaveholder. However important slaves are to the economy—the demands of the economy are always the key argument for slaves—they are never deemed worthy of a life of their own, on their own terms. The slave lives in terror of the master’s freedom.

[70] Let’s explore some nuances. When N. Scott Momaday of the Kiowa nation says the most important thing we could do for the planet is reinvent the sacred, what might that mean? If we did regard nature as sacred, how would that qualify our perspective and affect our actions in the Anthropocene?

[71] Even if we define it minimally—that which is sacred is worthy of reverence and respect, that which is worthy of reverence and respect is sacred—we haven’t described what generates or confers reverence and respect. Is it a quality that renders something sacred? Is it an experience? Is it an ascription of God? In Kathleen Norris’s Dakota: A Spiritual Biography, she writes: “I suspect that when modern Americans ask, ‘what is sacred?’ they are really asking ‘what place is mine? what community do I belong to?’ I think this explains in part the appeal of Native American religions, and also the appearance of guidebooks to monastic retreat houses. We are seeking the tribal, anything with strong communal values and traditions.”[42] Here “sacred” seems the experience of belonging; where I am truly at home is sacred space.

[72] Or is sacred value an intrinsic or borne value? Legion are the numbers who have deemed creation sacred and said nature is inherently or intrinsically of value and worthy of reverence. It’s not my option or any human’s option, to determine the sacred; it belongs as such to God’s handiwork. It’s not a subjective experience only, it’s an given quality we find compelling. (We will return to this.)

[73] Or maybe something is deemed sacred because it connects our experience with the divine and requires ritual as a response. When water is on the supermarket shelf in plastic, it is not sacred; when it is poured out as the waters of life in baptismal and baptismal renewal, it is. When the bread is taken, blessed, broken, and shared, it is sacred. Stacked in bags in the same supermarket, it is not. Maybe ritualizing the presence of God marks the sacred.

[74] Whatever it is, we know the sacred can be contested and riddled with conflict. It can raise hackles and generate fierce controversy. If you want to escalate the stakes in a dispute, just deem your position “sacred” and the other’s “obscene” and “profane.” The present civil and uncivil debates over same-sex marriage reflect how deeply notions of marriage as sacred qualify the stands that are taken. Or, to pick another example, take Jerusalem. If Jerusalem were simply secular real estate, we would easily settle questions of who hawks what goods where. But because Jerusalem is the most sacred of places for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, it’s always on the edge of warfare. People kill and die for the sacred. Violence and the sacred go hand-in-hand.

[75] With these initial comments about the sacred in mind, let me share one Christian ethicist’s attempt to describe the sacred in generic terms and then finish with a discussion of three possible relationships of the human to the rest of nature, all of them sacred.

[76] In his new book, The Sacredness of Human Life, David Gushee sets out “a sacredness paradigm.” Here is a summary of the elements:

[77] Something from a class of ordinary things is lifted up and designated as of elevated rank. Whether it’s a day or a place or documents or an event, it’s declared special, different, set apart.

[78] The consecration, or hallowing, or blessing of this sacred entity is undertaken by some agency; someone or some group deems it sacred.

[79] A variety of reasons can be given for its status as sacred. But for whom they pertain, these reasons are compelling; they are anything but casual or trivial.

[80] Sacred status evokes, for those who honor that status, postures of awe, veneration, honor, reverence, respect.

[81] This attitudinal posture carries with it concrete moral obligations to prevent the desecration of the sacred.

[82] The moral obligation to preserve what is often called the “inviolability” of the sacred is normally accompanied by negative sanctions for those who do desecrate the sacred. Violating the sacred is a serious sin and often a crime.[43]

[83] Gushee’s paradigm is helpful. Our attention, however, isn’t only general. We’re not trying to settle the understanding of “sacred” in the abstract and then see if that description works. Our attention is to Earth as sacred creation, or as a sacramental commons in a world-come-of-age. Our attention is to the relationship of planetary creation and the sacred, or nature and the sacred. Our attention more precisely is to our relationship to these as sacred, or not. Our attention is specifically to our human responsibility vis a vis nature in the age of the Anthropocene, when Earth itself is dominated by human activity. What would it mean in this context, at this time, to consider the planet a sacramental commons and creation here sacred?

[84] Gretel Van Wieren outlines some possibilities in Restored to Earth: Christianity, Environmental Ethics, and Ecological Restoration. Van Wieren is committed to creation as sacred. At the same time she must ask about human intervention, since ecological restoration by definition is human landscaping of natural habitat. When fateful human presence is a given, as it is in the Anthropocene, her discussion of possible relationships is worth a listen.

[85] Some people assume that nature’s authenticity and value is located in itself and is diminished or lost through human influence. Here “sacred” nature is associated with the least disturbed ecosystems. Humanly restored nature is not as good as the original, in this picture. Holmes Rolston, dean of environmental philosophers, says he would rather hike through old-growth forest than any restored wood because the sacred for him is associated with preserved and conserved nature, with minimal human impact. To be part of this nature is to be present to it in wonder and awe, like Annie Dillard pilgriming at Tinker Creek, John Muir mapping the West, or John Wesley Powell navigating the Colorado. The human is most present, and most human, as the open, receptive subject breathing in sacred nature. This sounds Franciscan to me.

[86] The alternative is nature as sacred because of hands-on human intervention. While Rolston hikes his old-growth forest, Manhattanites repair to Central Park. Nyla and I knew Central Park when it was degraded and dangerous. The Central Park Conservancy took it on and now, because of meticulous urban landscaping, tens of thousands treat Central Park as their sanctuary, their church. Or see what happened to the abandoned rail lines on Manhattan’s West Side. It’s the High Line now, with indigenous plantings. It’s become the favorite stride for Westsiders. Per square foot, it’s the single most popular outdoor space in the city.

[87] Of course, Earth as sacred need not entail full-scale human creation of parkland. Think of the role of corn and corn pollen in the lives and rituals of indigenous peoples of North, Central, and South America. This corn is not the original, humble, knee-high, wild member of the grass family. This is corn carefully cultivated and intimately known over generations of human beings who identify with it as both the work of their own hands and the gift of the gods. This is corn as a staple food, a giver of life, and a key presence in sacred ceremonies. Its pollen blesses every important community undertaking. Here, every bit as much as for any parkland, the human is the other active subject, with nature, in a relationship that connects nature to the transcendent. The sacred is lifted up and set apart by human action. The sacred is literally cultivated by the human, though not owned. We are groundlings—Luther calls us “clods”[44]—who are also cultivators. This sounds Benedictine.

[88] What, then, do those “restored to Earth”[45] take as the basic human stance for the Anthropocene? Is it the minimal hands-on but deeply connected stance of St. Francis? Or is it the oraetlabore, prayer and work, of the Benedictines? Both Franciscans and Benedictines view nature as sacred; neither adopts the nature-as-resource-only stance of modernity. Both are sacramental; neither is imperious. Both oppose mountaintop removal, e.g., and both engage in their version of ecological restoration. Are you Franciscan or Benedictine?

[89] A third relationship offers a meeting ground. Maybe the sacred rests in a dynamic present throughout nature, human and other-than-human. Maybe the sacred is life’s capacity for generation and regeneration, for organization and self-renewal, for a kind of wildness and venturesomeness. “Variety is the pledge that matter makes to living things. Think of a niche and life will fill it, think of a shape and life will explore it, think of a drama and life will stage it,” writes Diane Ackerman. “I personally find cactus an unlikely predicament for matter to get itself into,” she goes on, “but no stranger than we humans, the lonely bipeds with the big dreams.”[46] So maybe “sacred” is less a given quality or state of nature than it is our response to all nature as energy and drama, wonder and mess, death and renewal, all the way down. This would be in keeping with the Orthodox understanding of God as the uncreated energy of the created universe, universally identified across religions as spirit or the Spirit (God in your cabbage soup!). Human presence would then mean those human interventions that allow nature to exercise its extravagance in ways we may help facilitate but which we do not control and cannot, in the end, predict, either. It’s not hands-off; nor is it hands-on in a heavy-handed way. It’s hand-in-hand, a partnering hand. Then “sacred” is a word for what we discover by deep listening to what soil, water, air, forests, and creatures are and do as Earth citizens. “Sacred” is what we experience in deep listening to nature’s populations and requirements for their own regeneration amidst Anthropocene turbulence. In this understanding, they are sacred because God has given them a raucous life we are part of and beholden to, but not in possession of. (I add that the command to exercise dominion never meant to own or possess. If you choose to retain the symbol of the steward, remember the steward is precisely one who doesn’t own, yet is entrusted with, as a trustee.)

[90] I add three remarks to Van Wieren’s. First, in the Anthropocene we cannot be a passive presence. Simply by virtue of what 7+ billion of us do on a daily basis for life and health and food, we are a geophysical force. At the same time, the species arrogance of nature as capital alone—our present stance—is a dead end. Some essential qualification that it is not master/slave and unqualifiedly utilitarian must mark our belonging to the rest of nature. Nature infinitely worthy of reverence and respect, ourselves included, seems that qualifier.

[91] Second, species humility coupled with creation-wide responsibility for life as a sacred trust in a world-come-of-age, is the focus of sacramental ethics. The late Charles Birch, a biologist and an active member of the World Council of Churches, wrote that the sacramental “emphasizes the tender elements of the world” and nurtures “a humbling sense that all creatures are fellow creatures and that human responsibility extends infinitely to the whole of creation.” These softer, more tender elements, such as reverence and respect, elicit the better angels of our nature. They are in keeping with virtues identified by Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim as the virtues shared by most all religions: “reverence, respect, restraint, redistribution, responsibility and renewal.”[47]

[92] My final addition to Van Wieren is that these virtues and all three relationships properly belong to Lutheran sacramental imagination. God in your cabbage soup and rinse water is home to all three. Context decides priorities. Sometimes the right response is preservation and conservation; sometimes it’s direct and far-reaching intervention; and, safe to say, at all times it’s deep listening to the primal elements of earth, air, fire, and water as fellow subjects in an awesome cosmic communion that is God’s.

Species Sin

[93] I turn to a second Reformation theme.

[94] There must be segments of “Prairie Home Companion” that enjoy Lutherans on sin. I spare you those. My focus is not how dour Lutherans can be when they are high on sin. Rather, I turn to Reformation insights that might address “species sin” in the Anthropocene.

[95] Take Luther’s depiction of sin as the condition of the fearful heart twisted back upon itself. This is the human heart, not just some individual’s, or the pope’s. So this is Luther’s species analysis. Calvin says much the same: The center of our life in God and creation is turned toward us in such a way that we affirm ourselves and our confreres as of equal value, but not “the other,” and we acknowledge others only in relation to oneself, on our parochial terms. Then “we” are consistently ranged over against “them,” with the norms of judgment firmly in the hands of the collective “we/us.” In recent centuries this has meant normative whiteness as the basis for judging other races, European and neo-European societies as the basis for judging other peoples and civilizations (invariably as lesser or inferior, even savage), Christianity as the measure of true religion, male status as decisive for female, heterosexual for homosexual, the able-bodied for the disabled, the sighted for the blind, and so forth. The self-referential “we,” viewing the world from inside its own bubble, takes the measure of “they” on the terms of “us” and not “them,” much less on the basis of the ever gracious terms of God in Jesus, the “Mensch for others” (Bonhoeffer). This is Luther’s corcurvatum in se.

[96] Protestants have elaborated this[48] as “pride” in a dazzling display of subtle forms, including the temptations of humility and false modesty. Reinhold Niebuhr’s acute analysis of sin as overweening individual, social, moral, and religious pride remains a classic.[49] Niebuhr, too, meant pan-human nature, not simply the eccentricities of neighbors we don’t like. Yet Protestants joined Catholics, the Orthodox, and others in failing to reach the logical conclusion; namely, the elaboration of pan-human sin as species pride and species arrogance. The species “we” that sins is set over against the “they” of the rest of nature that is sinned against, but the sinned against go unrecognized as bearing significant moral claims. Indeed, the collective human “we” doesn’t even conceive itself as one species bound together in living and dying with other species in a common community, with a common destiny, though that is its reality.

[97] With one notable exception: when we do regard ourselves a species, we see ourselves as segregated, set apart and over. We thus end up in a very odd place, from a moral and theological point of view: a contracting Earth is jeopardized by its acclaimed stewards who hardly even wince at the reality that they have become de-creators in the late Holocene and early Anthropocene. The traditional analysis of sin as pan-human waywardness simply falls silent about cumulative Homo sapien threats to life. When did you last confess your sins against water, soil, air, or the animals of factory farming? Some theological black hole evidently swallowed all empathy for other-than-human nature. After all, many human societies have known the natural interconnectedness of all life processes and creatures. They also have felt moral claims upon them for reverence and respect that leads to the humane treatment of other creatures. This is good news. It means that species arrogance is not pan-human in a way that brooks no exceptions. Species arrogance can be jettisoned. My point, however, is that Reformation insights on sin, taken to their logical conclusion about us as a species, offer important understanding for us precisely when our presence and power are so fateful for Earth, precisely when the theo-ethical task is claiming Christ for the Anthropocene.

[98] Do something with this. Write a creed that makes the First Article of the Apostles’ Creed more than a breezy reference to God as “maker of heaven and earth.” Does the universe and its Creator not merit more than five words?

[99] Or try a confession of sins that articulates our systemic maltreatment of the community of life and its generative elements of soil, air, fire, and water? What about the extinction of species as human-induced? Reformation insights on human sinfulness have great power to work good, if they are re-formed to address our Anthropocene hubris as a species. Sacramental imagination brings that into liturgy and ritual so what we are formed anew in worship.

[100] At this juncture, we should turn to other Reformation markers—vocation and the priesthood of the laity, salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, the re-reading of Scripture and tradition, re-crafting liturgy for a new era, re-writing confessions we will live and die by, inventing institutions for the changes in front of us, discerning anew who Christ is, for us, today, and re-ordering our faith practices accordingly. These belong to the Reformation moment we inhabit every bit as much as the two themes we’ve treated. If there is moral creativity adequate to the challenges of the Anthropocene, reform-rooted Lutheran communities can be among the communities that drive that creativity.

Larry Rasmussen is Reinhold Niebuhr Professor Emeritus of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, New York City. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

[1] John Dillenberger and Claude Welch, Protestant Christianity (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1954), 323.

[2] The phrase is Paul Tillich’s, from The Protestant Era (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948).

[3] A basic difference of the Reformers’ conviction and ours should not go unmentioned. They considered their work a return to the early church and they imagined a unity there which we now know did not exist. By contrast, we do not look back to an earlier era but to a different future. On that count, this essay finds Bonhoeffer a better guide than Luther.

[4] This account of what the Reformers did draws from Larry Rasmussen with Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, “The Reform Dynamic: Addressing New Issues in Uncertain Times,” in Karen L. Bloomquist and John R. Stumme, eds., The Promise of Lutheran Ethics (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 132-33. Readers who want a fuller account of the method and substance entailed in a Lutheran ethic of reform can consult that chapter en toto.

[5] John C. Bennett, The Radical Imperative (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975).

[6] Bennett, The Radical Imperative, 151.

[7] Bennett, The Radical Imperative, 157.

[8] Georges Cuvier, cited by Elizabeth Kolbert, “The Lost World,” The New Yorker, December 16, 2013: 38.

[9] “Letter of 30 April, 1944,” DBWE 8: 362.

[10] “Letter of 8 June, 1944,” DBWE 8: 428.

[11]DBWE 11, 251.

[12]DBWE 11, 252. The emphasis is mine.

[13]DBWE 8: 116.

[14] “Outline for a Book,” Letters and Papers from Prison, DBWE 8: 500.

[15] There are numerous references in the letters. Here see the “Outline for a Book,” in DBWE 8, 499-504.

[16] See especially LPP, 8 June 1933, 324-329.

[17] DBWE 6: 171.

[18] DBWE 6: 172.

[19] DBWE 6: 178 – 218.

[20] My thanks to Gary Simpson for suggesting this tie back into Ethics of Bonhoeffer’s prison theology.

[21]DBWE 10, 289.

[22]DBWE 10, 378.

[23]DBWE 10, 289.

[24] Creation and Fall, DBWE, 76. The ‘earth is its mother’ is a reference to Sirach 40:1b. Elsewhere at this time, in the 1932 address entitled, “Thy Kingdom Come! The Prayer of the Church-community for God’s Kingdom on Earth,” Bonhoeffer cites the exact words of this verse: earth “is the mother of us all.” “Thy Kingdom Come!” is available in DBWE 10, 285-97.

[25] “Basic Questions of a Christian Ethic,” DBWE 10, 377-78.

[26]DBWE 11, 252-53.

[27] DBWE 6: 91.

[28] Here I am citing my own summary, from “The Ethics of Responsible Action,” in The Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, John W. de Gruchy, ed. (Cambridge University Press, 1999), 213.

[29] This is Jean BethkeElshtain’s summary, interpreting Bonhoeffer. See Bonhoeffer for a New Day: Theology in a Time of Transition, John W. de Gruchy, ed. (Eerdmans, 1997), 225.

[30] “Outline for a Book,” Letters and Papers from Prison, DBWE 8: 500.

30 “Outline for a Book,” Letters and Papers from Prison, DBWE 8: 501.

[31] “Outline for a Book,” Letters and Papers from Prison, DBWE 8: 501.

[32] “Outline for a Book,” Letters and Papers from Prison, DBWE 8: 502.

[33] “Letter of 30 April, 1944,” DBWE 8: 362-33.

[34] “Letter of 30 April, 1944,” DBWE 8: 364.

[35] “An Account at the Turn of the Year 1942-1943,” Letters and Papers from Prison, DBWE 8:38.

[36] “An Account at the Turn of the Year 1942-1943,” Letters and Papers from Prison, DBWE 8:38.

[37] “An Account at the Turn of the Year 1942-1943,” Letters and Papers from Prison, DBWE 8:52.

[38] “An Account at the Turn of the Year 1942-1943,” Letters and Papers from Prison, DBWE 8:52.

[39] “An Account at the Turn of the Year 1942-1943,” Letters and Papers from Prison, DBWE 8:52.

[40]DBWE 8: 367.

[41] Used with permission of Kristen Gilje.

[42] Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Biography (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1993), 129.

[43] A paraphrase of p. 22, David Gushee’s “sacredness paradigm,” in The Sacredness of Human Life: Why An Ancient Biblical Vision Is Key to the World’s Future (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013).

[44] In his lectures on Genesis.

[45] Van Wieren’s title.

[46] Diane Ackerman, “Worlds within Worlds,” New York Times, December 4, 1995: sec. 4.

[47] Mary Evelyn Tucker, “The Alliance of World Religions and Ecology,” SGI Quarterly: A Buddhist Forum for Peace, Culture and Education 61 (July 2010): 4.

[48] In a Peanuts cartoon, Lucy, at her Psychiatric Help stand, says to Charlie Brown, “The whole trouble with you is that you are wishy-washy.” Charlie asks: “What’s the difference between being wishy-washy and being humble?” Lucy: “You are wishy-washy…I am humble!” From The Santa Fe New Mexican, December 26, 2013: A-12.

[49] See vol. 2 of Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1943), the chapter entitled “The Kingdom of God and the Struggle for Justice.”

Larry Rasmussen

Larry Rasmussen is ​Reinhold Niebuhr Professor Emeritus of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, New York City