Larry L. Rasmussen is a prominent Christian ethicist and the author of numerous books, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Reality and Resistance (1972), Moral Fragments and Moral Community (1993), and Earth Community, Earth Ethics (1996). (I remember reading the last mentioned book during my first semester of graduate school in the fall of 1999.) Rasmussen served as the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York from 1986 until his retirement in 2004. In his latest book, Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key (2013), Rasmussen offers a wide-ranging exploration of the ecological predicament of humanity, presenting what he believes to be the essential building-blocks for a new kind of religious ethic intended to inspire and empower the world’s religious communities to address that predicament.
Earth-Honoring Faith is a challenging book, not only because of its length (400 plus pages) but also because of the depth and breadth of the topics and themes it covers. The presentation is multi-disciplinary and contains numerous lengthy digressions; Rasmussen likes to take his sweet time as he painstakingly builds up each of his arguments, drawing upon a large number of both contemporary and ancient sources, the diversity of which is clearly reflected in his copious (and very informative) endnotes. This is both a strength of the book as well as a possible weakness; a novice or half-committed reader can easily get lost in the complex labyrinth of names and concepts, giving up prematurely. Yet, a serious effort to engage with the text is likely to reward the reader in unanticipated ways. Overall, Earth-Honoring Faith can be seen as the product of a lifetime of research and reflection on the part of its author, a work that demands from the reader nothing short of a similar investment of sustained attention and thoughtful engagement.
It would be presumptuous of me, therefore, to try and condense the contents of the entire book in a few blog posts. Due to the richness of Rasmussen’s text, any such attempt is likely to distort rather than illuminate. What I would like to do, instead, is to summarize and paraphrase those sections of the book that I’ve personally found most interesting. In doing so, I would probably have to jump back and forth through the text, rather than strictly follow the order of the author’s own presentation. Basically, this is going to be a subjective, and highly selective, interpretation, with no pretension of either complete objectivity or anything close to thoroughness. Furthermore, since my plan is to eventually write a full-fledged response to Rasmussen’s proposal of an “earth-honoring faith,” these blog posts are also intended as my preliminary attempts to understand the significance of his arguments, as well to help me figure out how I feel about them.
I will begin with a brief outline/overview of the book. Earth-Honoring Faith is divided into two main parts. The first part deals with four fundamental questions:
- What kind of creatures are we? (We are bio-social beings who use symbols and seek meaning; we are moral by nature but not infallible.)
- What is the state of the world we are living in? (Our world is at the brink of ecological collapse because of our own misguided choices.)
- What kind of faith should we look for? (We ought to seek a faith that honors the earth and allows us to live in harmony with the rest of nature.)
- What sort of ethic do we need? (We need a new kind of religious ethic that invests nature with sacred value and meaning.)
In the first part of the book, Rasmussen argues that the modern industrial-capitalist path of humanity has led us into a truly disastrous situation, and that business-as-usual is no longer a viable option. Humanity needs to change its ways. This involves giving up certain habits of thoughts and action, and adopting new ones. Since we don’t like the consequences that have resulted from our recent choices, we need to learn how to make alternative choices. If one were to imagine the modern, global human civilization as analogous to a huge ship traveling at high speed toward certain disaster, then our task is to turn the ship around as quickly as possible, despite its tremendous momentum. For Rasmussen, the required turn-around involves a number of “long-haul transition,” as listed below:
- A perspectival transition (characterized by a reenchantment of the natural world)
- An economic transition (so that economic activity does not exceed the earth’s carrying capacity and other natural limits)
- A demographic transition (involving a reduction in the total human population as well as the size of each person’s ecological footprint)
- A polity transition (involving a shift away from capitalism, and a democratizing of social, political, and economic power)
- A policy transition (characterized by adoption of integrated policies that address societal and ecological concerns together)
- A religious and moral transition (so that religious communities promote an earth-honoring faith, and religious ethic includes the care of creation)
In order to bring about these transitions, Rasmussen argues, humanity is going to need an earth-honoring faith, as well as a corresponding moral framework needed to realize that faith into concrete practice.
In the second part of the book, Rasmussen offers an inventory of key religious resources necessary for developing the required religious ethic. Even though Rasmussen’s focus is on Christianity, he provides numerous illustrations from non-Christian traditions as well, emphasizing that these resources are not limited to any one tradition. His choice of the most appropriate religious resources for this purpose seems to be at least partly guided by their perceived opposition to, and their incompatibility with, the dominant habits of thought and action that characterize the modern industrial-capitalist society. The basic idea seems to be that certain specific religious teachings, if properly revived, will be able to counteract certain specific, and highly egregious, tendencies of our ecologically destructive civilization.
In the second half of the book, therefore, Rasmussen proposes five essential elements for constructing a new moral framework that would help the world’s religious communities realize an earth-honoring faith. These are:
- Asceticism (as opposed to consumerism)
- Sacramentalism (as opposed to commodification)
- Mysticism (as opposed to alienation)
- Prophetic-Liberative Practices (as opposed to oppression)
- Wisdom (as opposed to folly)
If and when I return to this project, I will discuss each of these five elements, mainly by drawing upon the second part of Larry Rasmussen’s Earth-honoring Faith. I’m not sure when that will happen, if at all, so don’t hold your breath.