Larry Rasmussen says people of faith must go back to their roots. Way back.
Ancient religions recognized the oneness of man and nature, he said in an interview earlier this week. Since the Industrial Revolution, though, that concept has been lost. Bringing it back can help turn around the environmental degradation that jeopardizes the future of Earth and, with it, the human race.
Area congregations and universities are welcoming the theology scholar to Lawrence from Sunday through Tuesday to discuss what they say is the most important issue of our time: our treatment of the environment.
“The very survival of the planet and species is based on how well we do this,” said Kent Winters-Hazelton, pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Lawrence. “It’s becoming a critical theological issue, and we’re hoping more and more of our churches will take time to focus on that and see if it cannot become front and center on how we teach and practice our faith.”
Since 2001, the Theologian in Residence/Visiting Scholar of Religion series has brought theology experts to Lawrence to share their knowledge and advise spiritual communities on how to better practice their faiths. The program is coordinated by Ecumenical Campus Ministries at Kansas University, with the support of congregations in Lawrence and surrounding cities as well as departments at KU and other area colleges. This is the first year organizers have invited two scholars. Mary Evelyn Tucker, a professor of environmental and religious studies at Yale University, visited Lawrence in February.
Faith, nature as one
Faith and the environment are inextricably linked, said Rasmussen, a Christian environmental ethicist and professor emeritus at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. The planet is essentially at a tipping point, and it’s up to faith congregations, as moral leaders in the community, to champion the issue.
Trying to create what he calls a “new moral universe,” Rasmussen suggested forming “anticipatory communities” that use traditional spiritual ties to the environment to become local learnings labs, practicing and advocating for earth-saving measures.
Several Lawrence congregations have already started down this path, forming eco-teams to dream up green initiatives for their own facilities and the city at large. More recently, 10 of them joined forces under the umbrella of Lawrence Ecology Teams United for Sustainability, an effort to have churches speak with one voice on environmental issues.
Theologian in Residence/Visiting Scholar of Religion schedule
8:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. — Worship Service at First Presbyterian Church, 2415 Clinton Parkway. Sermon: “New Wineskins.” Reading: Luke 5:36-39.
9:45 a.m. — Forum at First Presbyterian Church: “Earth Day 1970, Earth Day 2013: Ages Apart.”
6:30-8 p.m. — Welcoming reception at Ecumenical Campus Ministries, 1204 Oread Ave. Will feature a conversation with Lawrence Ecology Teams United in Sustainability, who will share stories of their successes and challenges. Larry Rasmussen will help members construct a vision of the future.
5:30 p.m. — Potluck dinner at Plymouth Congregational Church, 925 Vermont St. Rasmussen will give brief talk (“Motivating Factors for Religious Environmentalism”). Panel discussion to follow.
1-2:45 p.m. — Community lunch with Lawrence pastors at Genovese, 941 Massachusetts St.: “A Whole Earth Covenant: One Congregation’s Experience.”
7 p.m. — Lecture at Trinity Lutheran Church, 1245 New Hampshire St.: “Earth-Honoring Faith: What is That?” Reception to follow.
Rasmussen will also attend several KU classes. All events are open to the public. Click here for more information.
The ECM EcoJustice team, for example, has been campaigning to reduce the use of bottled water, preserve the Haskell-Baker Wetlands, and have KU Endowment divest its investment in fossil-fuel companies. Another eco-team, this one, at First Presbyterian Church, picks up roadside litter. Organizers say it's about doing what you can to implement change in your community, then expanding from there. “Just like politics, it’s local,” said KU ECM Campus Minister Thad Holcombe, who calls the environment “the most urgent issue facing faith communities right now.”
He quoted the Bible, from Luke 5:37: “No one puts new wine in old wineskins.” That goes for churches' attitudes toward the environment. “We’ve got to find a new way,” Holcombe said.
Rasmussen, who is currently directing a decade-long project on Earth-honoring Christianity at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, N.M., said another old spiritual belief has recently gone by the wayside: the idea of aestheticism, or living the simple life. He said these types of "deep, shared traditions can be used to address forces that are, on balance, destructive — like consumerism.”
According to Rasmussen, almost every religious tradition “mandates care for creation.” He said human beings "need to begin with the notion that everyday creation saves them with every morsel they chew, every breath they take — how can they reciprocate that?”
He claims the Industrial Revolution created a “bubble” around much of humanity that caused us to lose touch with nature. “Climate change and pollution, the poisoning of waterways and so on, are consequences of the fact that we didn’t think we had to pay attention to nature’s own requirements, because it was so abundant that if we ran out of one thing we could get it somewhere else," he said.
However, recent climatic events — Hurricane Sandy, the drought — are opening people’s eyes to the enormity of the problem, Rasmussen said. Fixing it will require more than just patchwork responses. Instead, he advocates for a “different way of putting life together”: producing food locally, identifying — and funding — renewable sources of energy.
Rasmussen, for one, is optimistic, primarily because of the time in which we live. “There are possibilities for change that provide the capacity to change very quickly," he said. "We can be global in ways we couldn’t be global in the past. We can organize more quickly than when we didn’t have the Internet and social media.”
He said his most recent book, "Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key," is based on the idea that “all of our religious and moral impulses need to be judged by the same criteria: Do they facilitate planetary health?
"The ‘new key’ is to put the primal elements — soil, air, energy and water — at the center of our moral universe … and for all of the religious traditions to put those requirements for planetary health at the center of their own thinking."