National Lutheran News

Can this unique blue-gren planet be saved?

Liturgical scholar, ethicist, teamed up to tackle ecology questions at St. Olaf College.

Christians have been accused of being at the root of the ecological crisis, says theologian Gordon Lathrop. Their focus on salvation as an exit strategy for escaping planet earth as a sin-saturated place makes them careless about the creation — and indifferent about its future.

The retired Lutheran liturgy professor made the assertion during a keynote address at the July 17-21 St. Olaf College Conference on Worship, Theology and the Arts.

The assertion, Lathrop said, is not completely un-true. The former Reagan administration head of the Department of the Interior was famously quoted as having said that, for “Bible believing Christians” protecting the planet is not important. That’s because, once the rapture happens (and he thought it was coming soon), the planet will no longer be of any consequence to God’s elect.

Some Christian hymns have contributed to the problem. Lathrop cited the first line of a once-popular text: “I’m but a stranger here, heaven is my home.”
“What does that say about what we think about the value of this world?” he asked.

God created and loves the world, Lathrop said. Our liturgy sometimes betrays a doubt that this is true. We have prayers, he observed, that presuppose that we are on our way “somewhere else” than planet earth.

But, he maintained, “There is powerful good news. We are experiencing a ‘greening of the liturgy.’”

As evidence, he cited prayers from the coming new ELCA worship book, Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW). “This book,” he said, “has my heart leaping for joy. It actually has a section of creation hymns.”

He lauded ELW for “finally admitting, in its texts, that the Earth rotates around the sun and not the other way around.” It treats the season of Advent not as a time of captivity waiting for the Messiah to arrive, but rather one where humans are recognized to be in darkness — even when it isn’t physically dark.

He celebrated the fact that ELW has what he called “some marvelous Eucharis-tic prayers, including some that celebrate God’s creating power. We get language like ‘You, under the oceans … You that feeds the insects …’”
He pointed out that early Christians turned the Eucharist (the celebration of Holy Communion) “into a sustainable meal.” They always prepared more than they needed and gave some of it away to others not present. He reminded his listeners that the church father Iranaeus saw in the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist “a clear witness to the fact that we do not celebrate some alien God, but one invested in the very stuff of the creation.”

What does that mean for us today? Said Lathrop, it precludes, for Christians, a disdain of the created universe, which needs our love.

Speaking two days after Lathrop, Larry Rasmussen, retired professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary, New York City, said he sees the idea of sustainability gaining traction in the popular imagination.
Using what sounded at first fanciful and ridiculous, he asked his audience, “What would it take to get a Japanese sumo wrestler to lose 150 pounds?” There are lots of good reasons for him to do so, he argued, but suggested, “The reasons won’t convince him because they go against his identity and his self-interest.”

But then came the zinger: “The U.S. is the sumo wrestler. We know there is a better, healthier way to live, but it goes against our identity and our self-interest.”

Rasmussen quoted the two presidents Bush, both of whom are known to have asserted, “The American way of life is not negotiable.” In spite of that defiant declaration, the speaker said, “Something is afoot. Pro-gressive Christianity is growing from the grass roots quite steadily now.”

He noted that Lutherans in Australia are contemplating building a six-week “season of creation” into their church year.

He maintained that policy change is critical and that “this administration and this miserable Congress have failed us.”

Said Rasmussen, “We need a shift in thinking from individualism to community. We’re not yet at the tipping point but we’re getting close.”

During a conversation with Metro Lutheran, the pair expanded on their concerns. Both were asked why people have such a hard time grasping the fact that planet Earth needs protecting.

Rasmussen said, “It’s only recently that we have had a view of the Earth as our home. During most of human existence, our home has been seen as ‘a place on the planet.’ That’s changed.”

Said Lathrop, “There are a lot of people on the planet whose energy has to go into merely surviving. They can’t think more widely.”

Rasmussen said that conservative Christians are now increasingly getting on the sustainability bandwagon. But, he said, “There’s been a stream of evangelicals across the country giving leadership in environmental issues from the beginning.” He said, “There may be a sea change of concern in all the denominations now, including Orthodox Christians.”

On the question of global warming, Lathrop said there are no credible scientists today who deny this phenomenon. He said, “Some journalists keep reporting this issue as if you have to show two sides of the issue. The problem is, on this question, there may really only be one side.”

Rasmussen said scientists are giving former U.S. vice-president Al Gore high marks for his currently running movie, “An Inconvenient Truth.” He said, there is no longer any debate that global warming is happening. The questions are, Is it humanly caused? and What do we do about it?

Said Rasmussen, “Now almost everybody agrees it’s humanly caused. It seems to be only in the U.S. that we have this anti-science attitude. The Bush administration has led that.”

Lathrop said “ordinary Christians” can make a significant impact on saving planet Earth. “Small gestures, like recycling, are important. When growing numbers do it, it bears witness. It’s not unimportant.”

He said, “How Lutherans decide to celebrate the Sunday liturgy is related to this. We are tempted to buy into Gnostic religion (which teaches that physical reality is bad and spirit is good).”