Our age of speeded-up climate change, extinction of various species, wholesale destruction of ecosystems such as coral reefs and rainforests, and unjust economic and political realities calls for radical changes in how we think about human society. "Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key" is Larry L. Rasmussen's deeply reflective and eloquent response.
Rasmussen, the Reinhold Niebuhr professor emeritus of social ethics at Union Theological Seminary, writes from the perspective of a leading scholar of religion and ethics -- also drawing from science, history and even poetry as he passionately asserts that we must care not only for human life but for the health of the entire planet.
Rasmussen makes a compelling case that we need to develop a new spiritual and ecological ethic that will preserve our planet's well-being for present and future generations.
In a fascinating section, he discusses the Great Chain of Being, which he calls "arguably the most influential of all Christian cosmologies." This long-dominant perspective "pictured life as an outflowing of the divine in an endless array of diverse and interdependent lives." God reigned supreme, followed by angels and then human beings (with men ranked higher than women). Peoples and cultures deemed "inferior" "were the unconsulted beneficiaries of a salvific gospel and way of life."
This view ultimately justified the conquest and colonization of non-Christian nations around the globe, forced slaves to undergo the middle passage "with great loss of life and centuries of ensuing coercion and fear" and led to the near-extermination of native peoples.
In place of the Great Chain of Being, Rasmussen looks to a web-of-life sacramentalism that values every creature, but "consciously shifts the common good as the long-standing Catholic ethical norm for human society to a common good inclusive of the planet, a good that includes global 'commons' such as the atmosphere and the oceans."
Such a view makes the planet earth itself a sacrament; it is "a disclosure of God's presence by visible and tangible signs, like the waters of baptism and the waters of the Columbia River and its salmon."
This perspective shares much with the teachings of other religions, including Islam, Judaism and Buddhism. For example, Rasmussen quotes Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk: "If we're capable of recognizing the flowing river, the blue sky, the blossoming tree, the singing bird, the majestic mountains, the countless animals, the sunlight, the fog, the snow, the innumerable wonders of life as miracles that belong to the kingdom of God, we'll do our best to preserve them and not allow them to be destroyed."
Rasmussen considers at length the element of water, using it as a case-study opportunity "to think morally about and with a primal element of earth." All religious traditions, he writes, understand water as a source and sustainer of life and accordingly create sacred water rites such as the mikvah, the Jewish ritual bath, or the Christian rite of baptism. He believes that to use water resources justly requires developing moral systems that consider not only the good of human beings, but of the planet earth itself. "A sacramental sense and web-of-life morality are more conducive to that than either chain-of-being sacramentalism or the commodity morality of industrialism."
But, Rasmussen adds, "All water engineers need not become Franciscans. But there would be sound ecological water management, not command-and-control management, if they adopted (St.) Francis' adjectives: 'Praised be you my Lord, for Sister Water, so useful, humble, precious, and pure' (Canticle of the Sun)."
As he crafts this new ethic of spirituality and ecology, Rasmussen draws not only from official church documents and teachings but also from sources as varied as Thoreau, Gandhi, Maya Angelou, Annie Dillard, Mary Oliver, Albert Einstein and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The result is a deeply insightful analysis of our planetary crisis that offers inspiration about how we might change ours to a more earth-honoring faith.