Pastoral Care and Ecological Devastation: Un-Interpreting the Silence

Intro: The Foundation of Hope

[1] In this article I would like to consider the art of giving pastoral care in the face of ecological degradation. This could be care to environmental activists, specifically, or to those involved in the struggle for creation care in general. However, it also entails the larger question of how to give and receive pastoral encouragement and hope for all of us in the years ahead. These years will witness the irreversible effects of global climate change, loss of species diversity, and general immiseration produced by the ravages of abuse of our environment become more and more prominent in our global experience (hitting the poor and vulnerable in our world first, of course), and the ability to hold on to hope that allows us to continue to strive for kindness and justice so that the situation does not further deteriorate will be of concern to all of humanity. What resources can Christian pastoral care bring to bear on this reality?

[2] How can pastors speak of hope in the face of environmental destruction in ways that are theologically responsible, scientifically accurate, and pastorally sensitive? Indeed, all three of these are necessary. For instance, pastoral care that is not informed by and accountable to the best science of the day can be no better than wishful thinking. Likewise, if pastoral speech is neither theologically acute nor humanely wise, then it cannot convey the gospel. And to be clear, that gospel (as it relates to creation and its travails) is this: that God in Christ is at work restoring all creation (Romans 8), and that Christian hope looks toward the day when all nature – including but not limited to humans – is brought into the fullness of salvation as God’s “new heaven and new earth” (Revelation 21:1).

[3] Christian theology has bequeathed to us a consistent witness that Christians look for the day when God refashions the material world that God made and loves so that it participates in the fullness of life-eternal precisely as materiality. This Christian Hope, elaborated by as diverse thinkers as Irenaeus and Lactantius to contemporary figures such as Joseph Sittler, Sallie McFague, and C.S. Lewis,[1] contrasts sharply with Christian theologies (both historical and in our own time, particularly at the level of popular piety) that portray the final stages of salvation as some kind of removal from earthly creation into an immaterial heaven.

[4] Bible scholars such as N.T. Wright have pointed out that part of the gospel itself is that God has given us the gift of being a part of God’s sustaining creation even as we await for the day of our redemption.[2] That being the case then all Christian ethics and pastoral care – whether it engages topics related to the environment itself or remains only at the level of an individual’s needs within that matrix of creation, suffering, and redemption – should have this gospel proclamation as the “account concerning the hope in us” (1 Peter 3:15). Moreover, as a number of ecological theologians have noted, such a worldview has the potential to provide a convincing rationale and powerful impetus to drive and orient our own efforts towards creation care now.

[5] There is, nonetheless, another resource in the Christian tradition that could be helpful in our search for resources for pastoral care for these times of ecological devastation and angst. Nothing in what follows should be interpreted as seeking to mitigate in any way the power of the gospel hope described above; indeed, everything that I will argue in this article counts on such hope as a bedrock. However, here I want to consider a different dimension of pastoral care in the face of environmental despair – the move from consolation to holy sadness as a theologically defensible and pastorally helpful mode of Christian affective health.

Bright Sadness and Truth-Telling

[6] As a number of contemporary theologians of the cross have argued, the Christian necessity to proclaim the gospel of Christ’s resurrection and creation’s restoration should not eclipse the powerful resources that we have within our own tradition for naming with brutal exactitude the ways in which the forces of death to which we are subject (and of which we are often the agents) cause pain and injustice in our world.[3] Indeed, sometimes even the feeling of guilt or sin can be a kind of psychological barricade against even greater terror in the face of seemingly random suffering or loss; as the saying goes, many of us would rather feel guilty than helpless.

[7] A basic truth known by seasoned pastoral caregivers is that the one giving care should not rush to “paper over” pain being expressed in, say, a situation of mourning with premature proclamation that all will be well because of the gospel. While the gospel does provide a bedrock of hope, as mentioned above, such a bedrock should not stifle people’s awareness of the realities of pain and death but should rather provide a space where Christians can find the resources to be even MORE courageous than those caught in the frantic denial of mortality and pain (a denial encouraged by the rush of neoliberal capitalism’s advertised promises). The same applies to the reality of despair in the face of environmental degradation

[8] Therefore, I would contend that, while Christians certainly have a role in staving off ultimate despair (particularly the kind that leads to moral paralysis or indifference) by freely proclaiming confidence that death will not have the final word in our planet’s experience, if that proclamation becomes synonymous with a Pollyana-ish naiveté about the magnitude of the ecological catastrophe that threaten human existence, both our public witness and our pastoral credibility will be damaged.[4] For instance, as I have argued elsewhere, Christian talk of caring for creation should not ignore the fact that, in a strictly scientific horizon, creation is mortal and thus subject to death (e.g. from the inevitable giving out of the sun) even apart from anthropic influence.[5] Such talk fails the threefold test of scientific, theological, and even pastoral credibility noted above.

[9] What is a better alternative? A clue can be found in a concept that Orthodox theologian Peter Bouteneff outlines in relation to the music of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. The eighty-year-old Pärt, who for the last four years has been the most performed living composer in the world, has been featured in numerous movie soundtracks and has been name-checked as an influence by many popular musicians (such as Thom Yorke of Radiohead, Michael Stipe of REM, and Laurie Anderson) as well as contemporary artists such as Gerhard Richter. His influence is all the more striking given the fact that, for decades, he has been a devout Eastern Orthodox Christian who has mostly composed settings of liturgical and sacred texts.[1] Why would an Estonian Orthodox composer who is reluctant to be in the public eye become an object of such widespread acclaim?

[10] In Arvo Pärt: Out of Silence, Bouteneff argues that a key feature of Pärt’s artistry (and its subsequent popularity among classical music connoisseurs as well as the broader public) is Pärt’s ability to compose music that resonates with the Christian tradition’s own refusal – when at its best – to let the triumph of the resurrection silence the pain of the crosses that are borne in this world (and, we might say, increasingly borne by the earth itself). Drawing on Orthodox traditions of spirituality, Bouteneff gives the name of “bright sadness” to this holding in tension of legitimate pain, on one hand, and hope for resolution, on the other. In describing the effects of Pärt’s signature style of tintinnabuli (“little bells”), in which a high melodic and low triad musical voice paired in strict mathematical symmetry combine in ways that allow silence ample space within the harmony itself (thus forming a kind of tension/resolution dynamic between high voice, low voice, and the resonances of the silence), Bouteneff makes the following observation:

The tension and the resolution at any given moment are created by the confluence of the stable and the straying, the divine and the human…[T]he divine-human relationship, in all its dimensions, is one of consonance and dissonance: divine and human are both radically other (uncreated vs. created), and also intrinsically related (the one is made in the image of the other). Construing the voices as “divine and human” will speak also to the paradox of the eternal and the engaged, the tension of time and timelessness. Contrary to the criticism of Pärt’s music as sitting coldly outside of time, it is deeply embedded within it in solidarity with those who experience the vicissitudes of history. That is the melody. But it suggests timelessness in a way that both grounds the historical and indicates its upward movement. That is the triad.[6]

[11] To continue and intensify this musical analogy as it relates to pastoral care: it is documented that a number of patients in hospice and other critical care situations request to hear Pärt’s music as they are in their care settings. Why might this be? I suspect that we have all been in situations where we have experienced hospital settings in which classical music – even otherwise excellent music – has been piped in to treacle effect: the incongruously joyous strains have the effect, not of lightening the mood as might ostensibly be their purpose, but rather to render inauthentic the voice of beauty in the face of pain. Bouteneff’s point is that Pärt’s resonance with “bright sadness” creates a kind of holy space whereby authentic acknowledgment of pain and terror is taken up within an economy of hope that – crucially – leaves plenty of room for un-interpreted silence.

[12] This is a mode of cultural production that brings joy because it does not impose it. It speaks to sadness because it does not try to cure it or fix it. It brings God – the Redeemer- in the spaces of silence, not of noise desperate to down out cries of pain. The caregiver whose way of being in the world might embody such a stance might not come across as “cheerful” any more than does a given composition of Pärt’s. But likely such a caregiver will be the one trusted when the brittle gods of cheerfulness fail to illumine a darkening world.


[13] So it is in fact this mode of authentic pastoral speech – a confluence of holding space for authentic pain amidst the larger context of hope, with the latter not overriding the former in such a way as to strain legitimacy – that will be crucial as the effects of ecological degradation continue to take hold in the years to come. Humanity is, by most metrics, at risk in the coming years of entering an era in which hope will be in short supply, and no cheap or inauthentic speech towards hope will survive the rising temperatures and sea levels.

[14] If pastoral care and prophetic speech is to bear witness to a Romans 8 sensibility, then the bearing of the pastor might indeed need to be one of bright sadness – a resolute refusal to let hope in the resurrection silence the cry of pain of creation in the here and now, even as the caregiver works in tune with God’s Spirit to bring about the confluence of pain, hope, and silence that bears adequate witness to humanity’s sin and God’s forgiveness. This will not be feel- good religion or analgesic pastoral care. But when done well, it may name truth and speak life in a world that awaits God’s redemption.


[1] Cf. The theological resources available at

[2] Cf. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2008).

[3] Cf. especially Andrew Root, The Promise of Despair: The Way of the Cross as the Way of the Church (Nashville: Abingdon, 2010) and Mary Solberg, Compelling Knowledge: A Feminist Proposal for an Epistemology of the Cross (New York: SUNY, 1997).

[4] Cf. Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Resisting Structural Evil: Love as Ecological-Economic Vocation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013).

[5] Cf. Robert Saler, “The Earth, the Road, and the Tomb: The Mortality of the Earth and Care for Creation,” The Cresset Lent 2013 (Vol LXXVII, No. 3), pp 50-52.

[6] Bouteneff, Arvo Pärt: Out of Silence (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 2015), 185.

Robert C. Saler

Robert C. Saler is Research Professor of Lutheran Studies and Executive Director of the Center for Pastoral Excellence at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. He is the author of Between Magisterium and Marketplace: A Constructive Account of Theology and the Church (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014).