Review: Larry Rasmussen’s, Earth-honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key

[1] “How, then, do we hymn the Earth differently?” Larry Rasmussen asks, in a time when much of humankind has long grown deaf to the “hymn of all creation” (5). The motif of song, and a Song of Songs, flows lyrically throughout this work (81), as well as in the urgent call for us to now “sing a new song” (4) and to find “courage to enter the song” (a phrase used in several places, and drawn from the quite fitting Marty Haugen hymn, “Gather Us In”).

[2] I likely first heard some of the early “notes” of Rasmussen’s “song” at a conference in Michigan in 1999, which focused on the role of the religious community in environmental issues (“Finding our Way, Finding our Voice”). I was discerning my call to ministry at that time, and I distinctly recall Larry saying – in words that resonated to my core – “Fidelity to God now means fidelity to Earth … such that the religious vocation, for the foreseeable future, is earthkeeping.” He then also shared that insightful quote from Bonhoeffer (used also in this book), “Earth and its distress – that is the Christian’s Song of Songs” (82).

[3] What Rasmussen unfolds in this book is a wider, deeper, and rich maturation, if you will, of those late 1990s themes, questions, and yearnings that have obviously been with him for many years. As helpful as his seminal book Earth Community, Earth Ethics (1996) was, Earth-honoring Faith is even more so; and my hope is that it will be “accessible” for even more readers. It will be – should be – quoted by many, and it could supply many a sermon with pithy passages for stirring hearts and minds.

[4] After a wonderfully evocative “Prelude” (the book’s Introduction), the first three chapters offer: 1) a deep and thoughtful examination of who we are and whence we came (“The Creature We Are); 2) searing and hard scientific truths of a bottom line: “The planet has changed and now we must change with it” (70, “The World We Have”); and 3) the beginning inviting outlines of what is meant by “Earth-honoring faith” (“The Faith We Seek”). The whole book, as per its title, comes back often to the latter as the main melody of this work.

[5] There are delightful and nourishing words in passages from “The Creature We Are” and in Rasmussen’s invitation to new ways of thinking about “ourselves, how we live, and our place in the world” (24), as he describes our truest human selves as “born to belonging” (11), “born to meaning” (24), and “born to morality.” (35)

[6] Passages in the “Born to Belonging” section may quite capture readers with their beauty, if not leave many of us also with a vague sense of longing for (a deeper) home. “Apart from human community implanted in an Earth community embedded in a cosmic community, we cannot, and do not, exist” (12). Our “born to belonging” reaches back across eons; the cosmically-generated elements in our bodies testify to that. “Born to Meaning” explores our inherent nature to find and make meaning of life, and to use “symbolic consciousness” in both good and bad ways. (24-27ff)

[7] The “Born to Morality” pages may come as a surprise to those of us who have not given this much day-to-day thought, but Rasmussen illuminates this aspect quite helpfully, laying an important foundation for the whole theme of this book. He makes the case that, indeed, “Our whole life is startlingly moral” (357).

[8] The rest of Part One continues with a valuable and veritable “Ethics 101” that explores “The Ethic We Need” via four chapters: “Change and Imagination”; “Good Theory”; “Community Matrix”; and “Tilling and Keeping”. These chapters perhaps deserve a separate review of their own. Suffice it for me to say, here, that I believe they would well serve both those in graduate religious ethics courses and more casual readers. All are written with Rasmussen’s expertise as an ethicist and his ever-present attention to the theme at hand, “Earth-honoring faith and religious ethics in a new key.” In a few places, the casual reader may get slightly bogged down in the mire of many words, but I hasten to add that even these sections are well worth the effort for the real-life stories and shining examples they hold within.

[9] In the full scope of this book, Rasmussen draws from an impressively wide and deep body of sources and voices, from 4th century bishops to modern scientists and hard data, especially in the striking, Earth-harming trends in all categories from 1950 to now (56-57). He finds wisdom and examples of Earth-honoring faith in all of the world’s religions; he mines literature and poetry for inspiring gems (from Denise Levertov, Annie Dillard, and others) and for pertinent epigraphs beginning each chapter.

[10] He does not shy away from the new understandings born of cosmology, or from Thomas Berry’s call to the “Great Work” of our time. Rasmussen more than once lauds the “wisdom-in-the-making” of the Earth Charter (344, Yet he masterfully anchors all in long-held ethical theory (albeit in the desperately needed “new key” for our time) and the sacred language of “deep traditions” (Part Two).

[11] Throughout the book, Rasmussen also boldly critiques where our industrial, unrestrained economic growth, capitalist, consumer-oriented society has taken us; and he both calls out, and invites, faith traditions to discern the signs of our times, and to shift “the center of ethics … from the self to the ecosphere as the relational matrix of our lives and responsibility” (78, italics mine). We must negotiate this transitional time, filled with “adaptive challenges” and “wicked problems” (5, 78) because we are at a crucial “hinge point” in human history (80), and sorely “a species out of context” (205) with the rest of the life of Earth.

[12] Humans have piled up a huge “ecological debt” and have surpassed the carrying and regenerative capacities of the Earth (325) [and] “unfortunately, Mother Nature doesn’t do bailouts” (77). I gladly note the attention given to climate change, and all of its impacts to both planet and people, as perhaps the ultimate wake-up call now for humankind, woven subtly (and often not so-subtly) throughout the book. Rasmussen goes so far as to suggest that historians will one day describe our time as the “fossil-fuel interlude.” (80)

[13] Rasmussen successfully, I feel, makes the claim that there is a key role for the world’s religions to play, in talking more deeply about these topics, in moral formation, and in supplying a sustaining energy (and vision) in times of great challenge. But here’s the rub: “That said, the powers of the world’s faiths are not up to the present task in most of their present forms” (6). This is the impetus for the book, and it is a valuable, scholarly, and faith-filled attempt to help show us the way.

[14] Rasmussen also brings an important religious perspective to the “Great Work” (a reference to Berry’s concept), in writing that it “… asks [us] for an Earth-honoring faith and a moral universe of more generous proportions than those we presently live.” In other words:

[W]e see ourselves as a segregated species, distinctive, 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 don’t even wince at the reality that they have become de-creators. The traditional theological analysis of sin as pan-human waywardness simply falls silent about our species-being and cumulative Homo sapiens threats to life. Some theo-ethical black hole evidently swallowed this sensibility (93).

[15] And so he asks, “What kind of faith is truly Earth-honoring? What kind of ethic its partner? What kind of faith and ethic yields zest for life through hard transitions? What kind creates renewable moral-spiritual energy to take on tasks that require generations of good work?” (79)

[16] I deeply appreciated Rasmussen’s reference to the venerable Joseph Sittler, who in his 1954 ahead-of-its-time address “A Theology of Earth” vowed as a son of earth [to] know no rest “until Earth’s voices are gathered up” into a deeper and fuller understanding of faith. “Earth’s voices have about them” the shine of the holy. A certain ‘theological guilt’ pursues the mind that impatiently rejects them (Sittler’s words here in italics; 103, n. 63).

[17] Rasmussen continues in a pointedly prophetic way that ought to catch the attention of all “religious” folk: “The theological guilt rests with God-talk that fails to gather in all of Earth’s voices to sing the hymn of creation or to reflect creation’s ‘shine of the holy’…Shorn of the universe, the worship of God is worship of a human species idol” (103, italics mine.)

[18] Wow. And, yes, I say. Earth-honoring faith is about a “reenchantment” of the world that “restores nature to human consciousness and feeling, nature as a community of subjects, the bearer of mystery and spirit, the ethos of the cosmos, and the womb of all the life we will ever know (77).

[19] Rasmussen also writes helpfully of the need for – and offers current examples– of “anticipatory communities” (121), those oft small in number collections or enterprises of like-minded folk who are already practicing Earth-honoring ways of living. He suggests that faith communities need to help birth, find, and encourage such “anticipatory communities,” ones that live into, already now, the world as it should be – as it must be – for all of planetary life to thrive and flourish in and through these hard times of “wicked problems,” adaptive challenges, and transition. “Wicked problems,” as Rasmussen terms them include such things as climate change and climagration [migration due to climate change], soil erosion, death of coral reefs, diminishment of freshwater supplies, acidification of oceans, rainforests, melting of permafrost, poverty, and economic issues (5,78).

[20] There is no one simple road to an Earth-honoring faith but the five chapters of Part Two (239-256), provide many possible and inviting pathways. These chapters alone are worth the cost of the book and time to read it. Here, Rasmussen delves into the ancient and “deep traditions” common to many world religions: Asceticism, Sacramentalism, Mysticism, the Prophetic-Liberative, and the priceless gift of Wisdom. He unfolds each of these, in counter-point to a less life-giving “partner” in Consumerism, the Commodified, Alienation (from nature), Oppression, and, of course, Folly. He draws out chords from all of the “deep traditions” to bring Earth-honoring faith to full-bodied life in our ways of relating to one another, to the Earth, and to God.

[21] These deep traditions have much to offer us, to counter the crassness and disharmonies of consumerism; our alienation from the natural world that birthed us; oppression of those without voice or whose voice is not heard (including other-than-human); the folly of how we recklessly regard our primal, sacred life-giving womb of soil, air, water, fire, and light; and the ways the modern technological and industrial era has made the stuff of life into commodities to be bought and sold, leaching the sacred from life.

[22] In conclusion, this book is important, timely, sorely needed and deeply prophetic – delivering a hard, truthful indictment of the world as it is, but also suggesting visionary, hopeful Earth-honoring ways forward. Rasmussen invites us, at the book’s close, to “study together” (368) and, in echoing those words of Elie Wiesel, lets us know that this is work for all of us, no matter our faith tradition and communities. We all have gifts to bring to this table; and the table for our time is one that includes all members of creation, human and other-than-human, along with our generative, primal “parental elements” of earth (soil), air, fire, water, and light. (59; 224)

[23] Finally, I would venture to suggest that any thoughtful person, concerned for the life of the Earth, would find this book engaging, challenging, stimulating. For people of faith – especially pastors, seminarians, spiritual directors, and any others in leadership positions in the church – yes, you should, you need, to read this. More committed adult Sunday School/adult forum study groups may be able to fruitfully tackle it, as well.

Earth-honoring Faith … Amen and amen. Let us begin, now, together.
The Earth and God … both wait for us with eager longing (Romans 8).

Kim Winchell

Kim Winchell has been a Diaconal Minister specializing in Earthkeeping Ministry since 2005 in the North/West Lower Michigan Synod of the ELCA. She is also a spiritual director.