John Bell of the Iona Community was quoting somebody else, but in a talk entitled “The Song of the Earth in the Ears of God’s People” at this year’s Professional Leaders Conference, he got very much to the heart of the matter — and the heart of our theme for this issue of Let’s Talk — when he said: “Creation’s theological purpose is to serve as a revelation of God; to damage the created world is to disable it from accomplishing this purpose.”
That’s an image that should hit close to home for preachers: that in overusing and abusing God’s creation, we are nothing short of muffling the earth’s own testimony to who God is. Environmental responsibility is on our minds in the Church because, of course, it is on everyone’s mind these days — we can’t exactly claim to be leading the pack. But we do have a unique language to apply to the conversation, and a unique sense that treating the earth well is not merely about survival but close to the core of why God put human beings on the planet. We have a vocation.
In this issue, we explore what it means to be stewards of God’s earth and how to think theologically in a way that serves that vocation, even as we live and do ministry in the midst of an ecological crisis of our own collective making.
Speaking of Nature in the City
Indeed, it bears stating at the outset that a lot of Christians, including those of us in Chicagoland, are still green when it comes to being green. But as the Rev. Dr. Clare Butterfield, Director of Faith in Place, tells us, church folks, including urban Lutheran communities in Chicago, have been on the ground committing themselves to practices that respect the earth for some time. Still there is a long way to go. Butterfield challenges us urban and suburban people of faith to recognize our own place as human beings, not as existing separate from, but within a larger, interdependent ecosystem.
Pastor Robert Saler, a Ph.D Candidate at LSTC and webmaster of Lutherans Restoring Creation, provocatively asks whether “Nature” as portrayed in the Thoreauvian tradition of nature writing is actually a helpful category for Christian theology at all. Saler, owning up to his largely urban, indoor life as a scholar, highlights other thinkers who have deconstructed notions of “pure” or “unblemished” natural spaces over against those supposedly lesser human creations ranging from the Chicago skyline to plastic flowers in the sanctuary. Could it be that the work of our own human hands, as we give new shape to what God has made, is also worthy of celebration?
Grace and Repentance
In an article on earthkeeping and eschatology, co-editor Mark Williamson engages from a Lutheran perspective, the contemporary emergence of “participatory eschatologies,” which argue for a greater degree of human responsibility in shaping, with God, the earth’s final future. Can a confessional tradition rooted in the Reformation solas and deeply committed to affirming God’s action in justification embrace a more cooperative paradigm when it comes to saving the earth? If so, at what cost to our proclamation? And if not, then why should we bother caring for creation?
Of course, for every Lutheran worried about grace being compromised, there is another worried about it being cheapened. John Flack, a graduate of the University of Chicago Divinity School who will be ordained by the Metropolitan New York Synod in December, expresses particular concern about how cheap grace offered in our churches has translated into environmental degradation at the hands of overly comfortable Lutherans. Summoning in particular the voice of Melanchthon, Flack maintains that the only starting place for modern-day Christians when it comes to environmental stewardship is repentance.
Solidarity with the Land and Those Who Work It
Pastor Stephanie Quick-Espinoza, a former ELCA missionary in Costa Rica, and Nicaraguan native Jorge Luis Espinoza Pérez, a TEEM candidate for ordination in the ELCA, offer a perspective on ecological justice originating from farm workers in Latin America. Using the popular (i.e. of the people) Nicaraguan Campesino Mass as a launching point, the authors — now serving the bilingual congregation New Hope/Nueva Esperanza in North Aurora — provide a window into the challenges faced by those who labor for the international banana market, as well as new, more sustainable opportunities in agriculture that have been opened up through the solidarity of church-based organizations.
Also Growing: Lutheran Divisions
Our columnists Ben Dueholm and Frank Senn examine from different angles the implications of the recently constituted North American Lutheran Church, both for those who have signed up and those who have remained in the ELCA but sympathize on some level with the defectors. Although “one more Lutheran body” — in the words of The Lutheran’s October editorial — will probably not be adopted as a tagline by the NALC, Dueholm argues that in the absurdly splintered context of North American Protestantism, it will be difficult to hope for too much more for the fledgling Lutheran body. Senn turns his eye to those who remain, providing some historical perspective on the practice of schism in American Lutheranism and offering a number of suggestions for how ELCA bishops might care pastorally for disaffected pastors and congregations who are sticking with the ELCA flock.
Reviews and Responses
Finally, this issue expands the horizons of Let’s Talk by including a number of reviews under the editorial stewardship of Thelma Megill-Cobbler. Our goal in introducing this new feature is to offer critical appraisals of books and electronic media that have obvious or not-so-obvious relevance to the Church’s mission and ministry. To get things started we have Megill-Cobbler on Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church by N. T. Wright; Williamson on the DVD series EarthBound: Created + Called to Care for Creation; and Dueholm on Reason, Faith, and Revolution by Terry Eagleton and Absence of Mind by Marilynne Robinson. Have something you would like to review? Contact us and Let’s Talk.
And Let’s Talk about these articles too and the questions they raise for you. Our issues are meant to serve as a springboard for conversation in this synod and beyond, so go ahead and click on that “Respond” button and help the discussion grow. We want to hear from you!