- Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key by Larry L. Rasmussen
Planet Earth is undergoing a fundamental transformation effected by its human inhabitants. Population growth, consumption, and industrial-technological impacts are altering the biological and geophysical systems that sustain life. “Hot, flat, and crowded” is how New York Times writer Tom Friedman famously described the situation. The influential nature writer Bill McKibben has argued that human influence on the biosphere is so pervasive that we need a new name for this altered world. “Eaarth,” he calls it: “a tough new place.” In Earth-Honoring Faith Christian environmental ethicist Larry Rasmussen argues that the world’s religions—he focuses on Christianity—must come to terms with this new reality and transform [End Page 130] themselves to face this new world. “The powers of the world’s faiths are not up to the present task in most of their present forms,” he declares in the prelude (6). In this book Rasmussen offers a critique of Christianity’s failures regarding the natural world and hope that Christian faith can contribute to the renewal of a wounded Earth.
Larry Rasmussen has been thinking and writing about environmental ethics for many years. His 1997 book Earth Community, Earth Ethics won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award in Religion and is widely acknowledged to be a seminal work in Christian environmental ethics. Rasmussen has spent his career interpreting the Progressive Protestant tradition of social ethics and its importance for contemporary Christian faith. His works on environmental ethics, including Earth-Honoring Faith, bring that tradition to bear upon the current ecological crisis. Bonhoeffer, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Martin Luther King, Jr., among others, appear throughout the work as dialogue partners in the task of reforming Christian discipleship as an eco-centric undertaking. However, Rasmussen also draws widely on the whole of the Christian tradition, especially Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox sacramental traditions, as well as other religious traditions, the natural sciences, and literature to render a rich, detailed, and nuanced portrait of the “great work” (Thomas Berry’s phrase) that religious persons and communities must embrace.
The fact of a changed planet is the starting point for Rasmussen’s account of Christian ethics. He notes that Christian spirituality and ethics (“Religious discipleship,” in his words) “has never before lived with a globally threatened ecosphere” (234). The only way to face the times is with a “different Earth faith bearing other moral-spiritual energy” that issues in an “Earth ethics appropriate to the altered world” (226).
The book is divided into two parts with an interlude bridging them. The first part consists of seven chapters that establish theoretical foundations for an Earth-honoring faith. A chapter titled “The Creature We Are” describes the human person as a meaning-making, sacred-seeking creature embedded within and connected to an interdependent web of life: a “biocommunal and geocommunal creature by nature” (22). The human has also developed a “shrunken sense” of itself, ignoring the implications of the evolutionary journey it has shared with all other things, and the impacts it has on other species (19). In a chapter titled “The Faith We Seek,” Rasmussen finds Luther’s account of sin as “the heart turned in upon itself” to be a fitting description of how humanity has focused upon its own needs and desires to the detriment of the rest of community of life on Earth (92). In “The World We Have,” Rasmussen draws on Scripture, environmental history, science, and the Social Gospel tradition to describe the current dire state of our ecological systems and to critique modernity’s elevation of technological mastery over nature and the pursuit of material economic growth as the ultimate concerns of humanity. In “The Faith We Seek” and “The Ethic We Need” he draws on theological and philosophical sources, primarily from the Western traditions but in dialogue with others, to establish the theoretical foundations of a transformed faith and ethics. Here Rasmussen urges a fundamental shift in focus for theology, spirituality, and ethics. The state of our planetary ecosystems...