I have been finding it harder and harder to say grace when I sit down to dinner. When small-scale farmers lose the rights to sow their own seeds so that forced laborers on deforested land can harvest genetically modified crops that are then shipped across the world at a huge carbon cost, how can the food in front of me be the loving provision of a merciful God? Am I simply thankful that I am on the top of the food chain? In the words of the concluding service for Yom Kippur, “We have prayed for impossible things: peace without justice, forgiveness without restitution, love without sacrifice.” Larry Rasmussen doesn’t tell you how to say grace in Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key (2013), but he does suggest how one might live so that how you pray reflects how you live. Rasmussen argues for a “kind of faith [that] is life-centered, justice-committed, and Earth-honoring, with a moral universe encompassing the whole community of life, the biosphere and atmosphere together as the ecosphere.” Instead of making humans the be-all and end-all of our ethical worlds, Rasmussen wants to “import the primal elements – earth (soil), air, fire (energy), and water – into the moral universe and center them there.” This is a call for us to change how we live our lives because, he says, “we live more deeply than we can think.”
Through a striking series of graphs, Rasmussen reminds us that something unprecedented happened to our planet after World War Two. “The planet has changed and now we must change with it,” he writes. “The tumultuous activity of the industrial age, what some simply call “modernity,” has thus brought us to the threshold of yet another transformation of Earth/human relations.” These pictures are worth a thousand words.
So what does all this mean for religion? Well, Rasmussen argues, “Most religious symbols originate in nature – here the mountain, the burning bush, the desert dreams, the words spoken in stone and thunder, the fire, sand, and lightening of the place. … Religious language … says we are born to belonging and hold citizenship in a cosmic community far surpassing our abbreviated moment in time.” If our world changes, so must our religions. Rasmussen believes that we are living in a period of great transition akin to the Axial Age of 900 to 200 BCE that gave birth to “Biblical monotheism, Hinduism and Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism, [and] Greek humanist rationalism.” Or at the very least, we are facing a major historical turning point like the Renaissance, the Reformation, or the Enlightenment. As the earth’s resources collapse we, whose very cells are part of this earth, must rethink how we relate to our world. We must forge “a new ethic” that will equip us to live in this new age.
Having spent many years in the classroom, Rasmussen spends much of the book walking us gently through key concepts in theology such as ethics, anthropology, asceticism, and mysticism. His interpretation of these ideas form the basis of this “new ethic” he is preaching. They come out of Rasmussen’s North American Protestantism, but his vision is not a confessional one. He explains that “earth-honoring faith shouldn’t even try for one religion for all people. The plains of history are littered with the corpses of only-one-way religion; one, and only one, true faith. Ironically, this faith is unfaithful. The gracious and all-merciful God is a spacious God while one-way faith is neither gracious and spacious nor merciful.” Thus he engages with evolutionary biology, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism as he struggles to explain what an “earth-honoring faith” might look like. Whatever form it takes, Rasmussen hopes, “it will be a conversion to God and the Earth in the same moment, with Earth-honoring disciplines, virtues, and habits.”
The biggest change is that up until now most of our ethics have only considered humans as worthy of attention – what Rasmussen calls “strong anthropocentrism.” This way of doing ethnics means that we believe in human rights but not in rights for water, animals, or the ecosystem itself. “Strong human-centeredness in ethics consciously puts human concerns at the center of moral ones while intentionally or arbitrarily placing nonhuman interests outside the circle of those concerns. In both religious and secular traditions such anthropocentrism typically views humans as the crown of creation and the only bearers of intrinsic value and moral standing. Human life is sacred but no other is. The other-than-human world bears instrumental value only. Its raison d’etre is to serve the needs and desires of Homo sapiens. Master-slave is the long-standing relation here.”
The problem with making only humans the basis of our ethics is that we are part of the ecosystems in which we live. We are made of water, we are dust to dust, ashes to ashes. We take from the soil and put back into it. Everything that we do to our environment we are ultimately doing to ourselves. Rasmussen’s argument is that “because we are born into a great web of belonging, the health of that web is the initial and basic frame of moral reference.” We cannot live without “Earth’s abiotic envelope,” it’s water cycle, and the microorganisms that inhabit our bodies. Quoting Wes Jackson, Rasmussen says, “to look outwardly and ecologically is to recognize that the ecosphere ‘is larger in time (it was here before we were), larger in inclusiveness (we are embedded in it), more complexly organized, and superior in evolutionary creativity (it gives rise to species, whereas we mostly only modify, through selective breeding, a few of the species the ecosphere has provided) and has greater diversity (a product of evolutionary creativity).'”
When something so necessary and so precious is in danger, how then should be act? First, says Rasmussen, we must embrace asceticism, not as privation but as a reorienting of our lives upon something more worthy. He writes, “saying ‘no’ to a distracting way of life is uttered on the basis of ‘yes’ to a centered one. A counterworld is thereby nurtured, an alternative to the craving corruptions of a consuming culture in which gratification has displaced gratitude.” Second, it involves appreciating the sacredness of our world. Our culture treats things, people, and ecosystems as commodities, and this is unacceptable, Rasmussen says. Instead of seeing things only in terms of how they can be useful to us, we need to appreciate them for being what they are. We will only appreciate the intrinsic sacrality of the world when we encounter it as mystics. Instead of seeing things and people as objects, mystics approach the Other as one subject meeting another, sometimes even being joined to or united with one another.
Rasumussen holds up Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mohandas Gandhi as people who have lived like this within “prophetic-liberative traditions” designed to change the world. Bonhoeffer and King are good examples for us because “both men are inoculated by their core religious convictions against the very perspectives that issued in virulent racism, disdain for the poor, genocide, and the Holocaust. For them, no people are so loathsome and so alien that they are to be set outside the circle of human compassion and belonging. None are such that we don’t have to hear their cries, honor their tears, or respect their dignity, even when those same persons violate the dignity of others together with their own. All belong within the circle of life.” The greatest of these was Gandhi, because whereas the ethics of Bonhoeffer and King were still anthropocentric, “for Gandhi, humans are not ontologically superior to other life forms.”
This is a book about ethics, not about eschatology. It’s ultimate vision is that of Wisdom, not resurrection. “Wisdom does not sound the apocalyptic song of the end times,” Rasmussen writes, “her assumption is that creation and Earth endure within limits established by their Creator.” So we have to learn to live and cherish a world that is not likely to end any time soon. It is unacceptable to shrug our shoulders and wait for the rapture. Instead, we must face the world in its brokenness and work to redeem it. He concludes that “to believe in God’s presence in all life is to offer more, a ‘more’ already borne by the ecosphere’s tenacious insistence that life will be and it will flourish. Here, in believing in God’s presence and disbelieving in the necessity of the world as it is, is the proximate source and energy for Earth-honoring religious ethics. … Here, in the disciplined ways of sacramentalism, mysticism, asceticism, prophetic-liberative practices, and wisdom, are the spirited lifeways that renew and recast human responsibility.” And in these new paths lie new hope.