Shelf-Life of a Vision: The 1993 Social Statement on Caring for Creation

[1] During the last decade, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, its theologians, its pastors, and many of its lay leaders have been preoccupied with a number of critically important issues: the calling and status of bishops and, behind that, the relevance of the historic catholic tradition; the interpretation of sexual identity and, behind that, profound questions of hermeneutics and ethics; church growth and, behind that, fundamental issues of ecclesiology, liturgy, and mission. The claims of these issues show no signs of waning.

[2] How are we, as church, to govern ourselves, faithful to the Gospel and honoring the classical tradition of the church? How are we, as church, to affirm God’s good gift of human sexuality, as that gift is identified by the Scriptures and embodied in faithful praxis? How are we, as church, to grow in numbers inclusively, as we hopefully continue to grow in grace, living, as we do, in a corner of the globe where the witness of the classical theological tradition is increasingly a matter of indifference for many?

[3] Such questions are, as a matter of course and rightly so, occasions for many headaches and heartaches for the entire church today. But, in the meantime, thoughtful ELCA souls still keep noticing – as if with furtive glances – a huge gorilla in the corner of the room, whom nobody seems to have time to talk about. That gorilla is wearing a sign, with a question: “God’s good earth is in crisis – do you care?” The global environmental crisis will simply not go away, however much persons of good will and Lutherans of good faith, in particular, may be preoccupied with other pressing matters. Along with questions of global peace and justice, to which it is integrally and inseparably related, this issue, the future of God’s good earth and especially of God’s beloved poor around the globe, commands our attention, never mind the other issues that may legitimately preoccupy us.

[4] Which raises the question about the shelf-life of a ten-year old vision – caring for creation. While some in the ELCA have struggled creatively to find ways to interpret and to embody that vision – numerous moving stories could be told – generally the vision seems to have outlived its usefulness. At least that is the impression one gains from much anecdotal evidence.

[5] Why? Has the vision been allowed to gather so much dust, because each of those aforementioned issues has so claimed the mind and heart of the church? Perhaps. But such a diagnosis, plausible as it sounds, is probably superficial. The root problem, in all likelihood, has to do with some of the most fundamental theological convictions embodied in the received Lutheran tradition in our era. To this very day, the operative theologies of creation, Christology, and liturgy that are widely assumed and often taught, at all levels of sophistication, in our church and in its congregations, are seriously indifferent about the whole creation. Hence they inevitably shape the life of the faithful in ways that make it easy for them to leave the vision of caring for the creation on the shelf.

[6] The single most critical theological fundamental, in this respect, is identified by this question: are God’s creative and redemptive purposes focused mainly on us humans or are they focused on us and on all other creatures? Is our theocentric theology fundamentally anthropocentric or is it fundamentally cosmic in scope?

[7] If we take the former for granted, the anthropocentric approach, our relationship to the earth will, as a matter of course, be a secondary matter and we will think of that relationship primarily in instrumental terms. We will readily champion “responsible stewardship” of the earth and that will be the end of that. The theology of the creation will be reduced, in effect, to one ethical mandate among many others. Knowing that we’re supposed to be responsible stewards, we move to solve the really important questions, those concerning bishops, sexual identity, and church growth.

[8] But if we turn away from the anthropocentric fixations of modern theology, and if we see – with biblical eyes – 1) that God has a loving purpose, from the very beginning to the very end, for every creature, not just for human creatures, 2) that Jesus Christ, by his cross and resurrection, came to redeem the whole cosmos, not just human creatures, 3) that the Spirit of God energized (hovered over) every creature from the very beginning and will continue to do so creatively and beautifully to and into the day when God will make all things new, and 4) that our liturgy is a proleptic embodiment of the eschatological triumph of God’s cosmic purposes, brought to their fulfilment by Christ and the Spirit: then we will live the vision of creation-care every moment of our ecclesial lives. Then creation won’t be something instrumental for us, but something essential. Then the vision won’t just gather dust on our shelves. It will fill our hearts and shape our deeds.

[9] Yes, for sure, the 1993 ELCA statement on creation-care is by no means the final word on the matter. Yes, for sure, that statement’s Christological, pneumatalogical, and liturgical claims can and should be extensively expanded and deepened. Still, the statement does make a historic break with anthropocentric assumptions. It highlights God’s purposes for and involvement with the whole creation. It accordingly opts for a theology of creation-care and eschews the more anthropocentric theology of stewardship (that term is no longer used). Further, the statement’s integration of creation-care with the mandates of social justice is thoroughgoing and compelling. It was, therefore, a very good beginning.

[10] Now it’s up to a new generation to dust off the vision, to fill it out where it needs to be expanded or deepened, and then to take it to heart with a new enthusiasm, even though the claims of other critical issues have not subsided.

H. Paul Santmire

H. Paul Santmire is a retired ELCA pastor and theologian now living in the Boston area.