Singing “The Hymn of All Creation”

This address was given at Trinity Lutheran Seminary’s Commencement in May of 2003. Used with permission.

[1] Exhausted faculty, indebted graduates, anxious development officers and president, relieved partners, children, parents, and friends, I am delighted to be your commencement speaker.

[2] Such is the manner of a concocted commencement address by Garrison Keillor, who, after delivering the whole burdened world into the hands of the graduates, though none had jobs, commended to them a sense of humor as sure proof of their humanity. “When Moses came down from the mountain with the clay tablets, he said, ‘folks, I was able to talk [Yahweh] down to 10. Unfortunately, we had to leave adultery in there, but you’ll notice that solemnity was taken out.’ And that night the Israelites killed the fatted calf and drank wine and told old Bible jokes in celebration.”

[3] There are good reasons both to leave adultery in there and take solemnity out. I wish for all of you and yours a day, indeed days and years, of celebration and joy. Break some more bread together, share the cup in another round, tell a few old Bible jokes, and embrace God, the fathomless Mystery that surrounds the burning mystery of your own lives.

[4] Joseph Sittler was an eloquent man who was also an elegant theologian. He was, to be precise, a Lutheran ecologian well before we had a name for that. In fact, Bill Gates’s Spellcheck still insists on that obnoxious wavy red line when you type “ecologian,” even correctly. A league ahead of his time, Sittler’s call in the 1950s for “a theology of earth” still goes largely unanswered among Lutherans. My hope for you today is that his theme of fidelity to God lived as fidelity to Earth does not go unanswered in your ministries.

[5] I didn’t come today as a sidewalk preacher in a sandwich board to reissue Sittler’s call. Nor it that necessary, since his plea is anything but new for ministry and calling. Already for the Yahwist, in the oldest biblical strands, the primordial human calling is to till and keep the garden. The Hebrew word for this-abad-literally means “to serve.” Adam (earth creature) serves adama (topsoil, the land), from which adam comes and to which earth creature returns. The Psalmist, too, says the task God has assigned you is “to renew the face of the earth.” And several decades before Sittler, Bonhoeffer said, in “The Foundation of Christian Ethics,” that “[E]arth remains our Mother as God remains our Father, and the Mother will not lay in the Father’s arms those who are not true to her. Earth and its distress, this is the Christian’s ‘Song of Songs.'” Your “Song of Songs,” in whatever form you tap out the symphony of your ministry, is “Earth and its distress.”

[6] We renew this calling and rededicate ourselves on a weekly basis, in sacred space. In “This is the feast,” we “Sing with all the people of God and join in the hymn of all creation…” A little later in the liturgy we bless God and pray, on the cusp of the Great Thanksgiving itself, “O Lord our God, maker of all things. Through your goodness you have blessed us with these gifts. With them we offer ourselves to your service and dedicate our lives to the care and redemption of all that you have made…” (Lutheran Book of Worship, 88)

[7] Despite all this, Sittler’s 1961 ecumenical complaint in New Delhi still holds. Though we Lutherans are a Christocentric people, we do not have a “daring, penetrating, life-affirming Christology of nature.” Yet until we follow such a Christ, Sittler went on, the powers of grace will not be loosed upon earth “to diagnose, judge, and heal the ways of humans as they blasphemously strut about this hurt and threatened world as if they owned it.”1 Sittler had himself, in 1954, vowed “as a son of earth [to] know no rest” until earth’s voices were gathered up “into a deeper and fuller understanding of [his] faith.” Earth’s voices have about them “the shine of the holy,” Sittler said. “A certain ‘theological guilt’ pursues the mind that impatiently rejects” [or neglects] them.2

[8] How will you answer the invitation of the mass to join the hymn of all creation? How will you live out your prayerful vow to the care and redemption of all God has made?

[9] Sittler himself might well have started with Simone Weil’s question, as a way to repair the errant theological mind and loose the powers of grace. Weil’s question is: “How can Christianity call itself catholic, if the universe itself is left out?”3 Any God-talk that does not take in all 13-15 billion years of the pilgrimage of the universe to date, and the immense wheeling of 100 million galaxies, each swimming with millions of stars and, we now know, numerous planets; any God-talk that does not gather in all species come and gone, all well as those leaving as we speak; and any God-talk that does not embrace the whole drama of life in all its misery and grandeur, is simply quaint. Shorn of the universe, ours is “apartheid” worship of a human species idol. It is God rendered in our own diminished, smudged image. It is Luther’s self-strangled heart (cor curvatum in se) at the species level, pridefully excluding all life and all worlds except our own. Teilhard, the Roman Catholic ecologian, finds himself praying in “The Mass on the World”: “Shatter, my God, through the daring of your revelation the childishly timid outlook that can conceive of nothing greater or more vital in the world than the pitiable perfection of our human organism.”4

[10] Teilhard’s was a Christology of nature, as was Sittler’s and Weil’s. And this real presence of Christ in the mystery of matter is the center of an Earth-honoring Christology for your ministries. “God crosses the thickness of the world to come to us,”5 Weil says in a splendid iteration of one of Luther’s own theological bottom lines; namely, the finite bears the infinite. The thickness of the world-the finite, the creaturely, nature, you-bears, like Mary’s womb itself, God-in-Christ and the Spirit. That cannot mean less than this, that Earth, this frail Ark of Life assail in the inkiness of space, is a sacrament. All peoples everywhere, together with the rest of creation, are born to belonging and are gathered into one in God as the grains of wheat scattered on the hill become the bread of life and the fruit of the vine becomes the cup of blessing. These are the visible and tangible signs of the sacramental commons that, by God’s grace and as God’s gift, is ours in earth, air, fire, water, and one another.6

[11]The thickness of the world crossed by God includes the Cross itself. The Cross of Jesus Christ is the center of Lutheran faith. Sittler’s lament is only that the Christ of our ministry and piety has not truly been the cosmic Christ at whose torture and death even the stones cry out for justice.

[12]The cross is the cross of brute reality. It tells the truth about life and the God of life. The truth about life is both joy and death, degradation and redemption, tragedy and recovery, beauty and terror, misery and grandeur. The earth knows great gladness, and steady spasms of humor: the humor of penguins walking, wildebeest trying ballet, baby homo sapiens first discovering their toes, butterflies trying to look serious or go unnoticed. But there is also earth’s grievous “distress”: disasters of the spirit and the land, catastrophes of psyche and ocean, the acidity of rain and soil, mind and household. Nothing less than lowercase apocalypse is already the companion of millions of creatures today. “Only the sated and well-fed enjoy Calvary,” said W. H. Auden, “as a verbal event.” The cross is not a comfortable symbol of culture and “home.” It is a shocking sign from the periphery about injustice and wrongful death at the hands of that culture and many another. The cross tells the awful truth of violence that never honors God. There is no humane way to destroy, no gentle way to kill, no good end for torture or capital punishment. Golgatha is a dump, then and now.

[13]But the cross also tells an awesome truth. To believe in God is to disbelieve in the world as it is. It is not to disbelieve in the world, but only the world “as it is.” Ours is not a wrong Earth and wrong world-that perennial Christian heresy. Ours is the good Earth and a good world gone horribly wrong. Yet in the emotive region of the cross and in the awful silence of a dying Christ, there is loosed a power that has traversed the thickness of the world to win space for life, even life abundant, on the home turf of death itself. It is the power of none less than God, a seismic whisper of strength amidst weakness, joy amidst suffering, grace where only wrath and pain seem apparent, even life itself on the rise within the precincts of death.

[14]But what does this cosmic cross of Christ and a theology of earth mean for your ministries, especially those-and it’s most of you-who are U. S. citizens? What does “to believe in God is to disbelieve in the world as it is” mean for us?

[15]A theology of earth and Christology of nature means loving the earth fiercely in the place that is home for you, wherever that may be. It means loving all of it fiercely: the folds of the hills, the sparkle of sunlight on water and water on stone, together with all those irrepressible efforts of humans to compose their own stanzas for the hymn of all creation. This is the “earth patriotism” of faith and it means, as members of the faith community embedded in the civic community, a patriotism that cares enough to address our nation’s deep flaws.

[16]Such patriotism also means what Christian asceticism has always meant: namely, living lightly, gently, and equitably upon Earth. It means Christianity’s disapprobation of a life of taking, built as it is upon carefully cultivated desire for essentially small things that thwart the true self in God. In a moment when two of the forces that most shape our lives are Islam and consumerism, the asceticism of loving Earth fiercely in a simple, disciplined way of life that tethers spiritual richness to material simplicity ought to seize us and not let go.

[17]I close with one illustration. Two Presidents Bush declared the same thing a decade apart: “The American Way of Life is not up for negotiation.” George Bush, Sr. did so, to world anger, at the Earth Summit he attended for one day in Rio in 1992. George Bush, Jr. could not do so at the Earth Summit in Johannesburg in 2002, since, among all heads of state, he was a complete no-show, also to world anger. But he did so after 9/11, and most of the U. S. citizenry apparently agrees, while most of the rest of the world does not.

[18]The Bushes, however, are typical, rather than unique; and the sober truth is that if you want to understand U.S. foreign policy as well as domestic policy since 1950, you need but focus on one thing: the exacting requirements of American affluence. You could start with President Franklin Roosevelt’s meeting in 1945 with Prince Saud of Saudi Arabia and their happy exchange: U.S. support for the new royal family in return for guaranteed U. S. access to Saudi oil, come what may. Or you could cite from 1950 onward the advocacy in both economic policy and popular culture of consumerism as a healthy way of life redounding to the common good. Bride magazine’s Handbook for Newlyweds, widely consulted in the 1950s, put it concisely: “When you buy the dozens of things you never bought or even thought of before, you are helping to build greater security for [the industries of] this country. What you buy and how you buy it is very vital to your new life and to our whole American way of living.”7 Yet even that may not prepare you for Alan Durning’s finding that global consumer classes, led by the U.S., produced and consumed as many goods and services in the half century from 1950-2000 as throughout the entire period of human history prior to that point.

[19]A close look at the notion of democracy embedded here is unsettling. Democracy’s three classic values are liberty, equality, and community (“fraternity”). But the only talk now in our nation is about freedom as liberty and how it can be secured. We hear nothing of the other two any more-equality and community. When liberty ideologically trumps all else in a free enterprise model tied to affluence as a way of life, then even democratic government itself is basically about protecting and promoting freedom to acquire wealth and do with it as you please. The right to property and its uses is more basic than, say, government as an equalizing force (“equality”) or government as the people’s means to achieve the common good together (“community”). We have quietly amputated two-thirds of the democratic vision.

[20]Put all this together and the question becomes this, for Peoples of the Book: Why don’t Christians, Jews and Muslims join others to protest a consumerism that touts freedom as liberty to ransack the world storehouse and engorge any and every style it comes upon, a consumerism ravaging the planet and mortgaging our children’s futures?

[21]With God’s blessing, you will work out a post-materialist life as one way fidelity to God is lived as fidelity to Earth. I finish with the invitation to sing Lutheran earth patriotism together. Love of country is wholly proper, as Sibelius knew. We can rightly sing “God Bless America.” But no Christian citizen of this nation should sing “God Bless America” as a song of American exceptionalism and as sanction for a way of life exempt from re-negotiation. Still, my invitation is not one borne of protest, even though we Protest-ants were named for such. My motive instead is to give full, positive voice to the Earth-honoring faith to which Joseph Sittler dedicated his own life and that I covet as your ministry’s “Song of Songs.”

[22]In any event, don’t forget to tell a few old Bible jokes along the way, slay the fatted veggie-burger, and share the cup of blessing. If we began with Keillor and Moses, we end with Sibelius and a line from Chesterton: “Life is serious all the time, but living cannot be. You may have all the solemnity you wish in your neckties, but in anything important (such as sex, death, and religion), you must have mirth or you will have madness.”8 Let’s sing!

This is My Song
This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is; here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;
But other hearts in other lands are beating with hope and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean, and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
But other lands have sunlight, too, and clover, and skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
O hear my song, O God of all the nations, a song of peace for their land and for mine.

Jean Sibelius, 1899.

End Notes

1 Joseph Sittler, “Called to Unity: Redemption within Creation,” (printed as a booklet at Holden Village, Chelan, WA, 1985), 9.

2 Joseph Sittler, “A Theology of Earth,” reprinted in Richard C. Foltz, ed., Worldviews, Religion, and the Environment: A Global Anthology (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson, 2003), 17.

3 Simone Weil, Waiting for God (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1951), 101.

4 Teilhard de Chardin, “The Mass on the World,” in The Hymn of the Universe (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), 25.

5 Weil, Gravity & Grace, trans. by Arthur Wills with an introduction by Gustave Thibon (Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 1952), 142.

6 The phrases are allusions to the hymn by Marty Haugen, “As the Grains of Wheat,” in With One Voice: A Lutheran Resource for Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1995), # 705.

7 Handbook for Newlyweds is cited by Lizbeth Cohen in “A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America,” Miller Center Report, A Publication of the Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia, Volume 19, No. 1, Winter, 2003: 6.

8 G. K. Chesterton, as cited from the Frontispiece of Susan Sparks, Humor and the Sacred, Master of Divinity Thesis, Union Theological Seminary, 2003.

Larry Rasmussen

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