Tuesday, November 14, 2006

What's Next for the Reformation? - One of the animating discussions among scholars of comparative religions has been that of the primacy of belief versus good works as the path to enlightened living in the here and salvation in the hereafter. Progressives appear to have rejected both of these paths, opting instead to deify their emotions (i.e.: fear of global warming, anger towards oil and coal companies, loathing of those scientists who contradict the scientific community’s “consensus.”) The drawback of this thinking is that compared to either faith (which may in fact have a rational framework based upon one’s experiences) or works, feelings are most likely to be transient and not at all underpinned by reason or logic.

A good "for instance" comes from this month's issue of The Lutheran, which includes an article by Larry Rasmussen, an emeritus professor at Union Seminary in New York. In his article, Professor Rasmussen argues that the next phase of the Protestant Reformation may come as an "ecological reformation of the churches," and goes on to propose that this new awareness of man's place in relation to nature is a natural extension of the teachings of Martin Luther, as well as those of German Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Rasmussen goes on to cite Theologian Joseph Sittler, whom he refers to as the first Lutheran "ecologian"

[Sittler's] famous address to the World Council of Churches in 1961 called for a "daring, penetrating, life-affirming Christiology of nature." Until we follow such a Christ of nature, Sittler said, the powers of grace won't be loosed upon Earth "to diagnose, judge, and heal the ways of humans as they blasphemously strut about this hurt and overwhelmed world as if they owned it.
At least witches and pagans spare themselves the trouble of jumping through all sorts of theological hoops to justify nature worship. One would think that with all of our seminarial sophistication, Professor Rasmussen (and all of us for that matter) would know better. There is a marked difference between appreciating nature as a representation of the power and majesty of the creator, and seeing nature as an representation of the creator Himself.

Most Christians comprehend this distinction in that they understand that there are many behaviors that are unwise, unprofitable, counterproductive and just plain silly - such as thoughtlessly polluting the environment - that are not necessarily sins against a "Christology of nature." The inability of some clergy to differentiate behaviors that may contribute to environmental degradation from those that ultimately lead to spiritual degradation should be troublesome to the laity of today’s mainline churches. Indeed, if we accept the notion of environmental sins, how does doing so impact our understanding of sin as a theological construct? Are we free to measure the severity of other “sins” in equally relativistic and abstract terms?

In any event, it is evident that men can no more sin against the earth than the earth can sin against humankind. Even as the earth teems with life, the earth itself is inanimate and without any self-originating choice or intent. In as much as earth “supports” life, such life is not unlike moss on a stone; the moss survives on the rock, but the moss neither purposefully gives life to nor receives life from the stone. Indeed, the stone is completely unaware of the moss, even as the earth is completely unaware of man’s inhabitance. If purpose is to be ascribed to anything, it rightfully goes to the creator of both the moss and the stone. Similarly, arguments that posit that when we befoul the environment, we act against God and our fellow man fall short of reason’s exacting standard.

But the core absurdity of such arguments is the idea that the theological obfuscations and ethical relativism that clergymen such as Rasmussen enunciate sounds any different from that advocated by secularists on a daily basis. And under such conditions, it is the church that suffers as it carries the
stench of a moral rigor mortis. To be sure, if men and women of the cloth cannot establish that they regard human events differently from the unchurched, it is the witness of the church that is diminished. If members of the clergy wish for their parishioners to be mindful of mankind’s responsibility to care for the environment, they need only say as much, and trust that their congregations will get the message. They need not try to cow us into submission with talk of transgression, and they certainly do not need to betray their contempt for more classic notions of sin.

P.S.: In the interest of full disclosure, I should inform you that I am a member - sometimes begrudgingly - of the
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the church body that publishes "The Lutheran." I describe my association with the ELCA as being “by marriage,” as my wife grew up as a member of that denomination. I have learned to appreciate some of the activities of my church and its sister mainline Protestant churches as much for the comic relief as for the spiritual edification.

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