(YouTube, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Nov. 5, 2021)
  • The power of God is present at all places, even in the tiniest tree leaf. Do you think God is sleeping on a pillow in heaven? … God is wholly present in all creation, in every corner, behind you and before you. — Martin Luther [LW 37:57], qtd. LENS).
  • The #COP26 is over. Here’s a brief summary: Blah, blah, blah. But the real work continues outside these halls. And we will never give up, ever. — Greta Thunberg, Twitter, Nov. 13, 2021.

When the Glasgow Conference on Climate Change (COP26) sponsored by the United Nations ended its deliberations in November 2021, Swedish environmental gadfly Greta Thunberg got on Twitter and dismissed its impact with a characteristic expression:

“Here’s a brief summary: blah, blah, blah.”

Writing in more measured tones for the Jesuit magazine America, Griffin Thompson, who served in the Obama administration as a lead climate change negotiator for the U.S. State Department and as director of its Office of Renewable Energy, came to much the same conclusion:

The COP26 climate summit in Glasgow was a tale of two cities: one afloat on bold pledges and new promises, the other sinking under the weight of “Greta Mania” and the chants of “blah, blah, blah” from the followers of the Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg. Not even Barack Obama’s celebrated oratory or a surprise U.S.-China cooperation pact could reconcile the differences. [Links in the original.]

An adjunct professor at Loyola University Chicago, Thompson contrasted the “weak volunteerism rooted in narrow national self-interest” demonstrated by the government delegations at Glasgow with Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’. His article, headlined “COP26 did not go far enough” and “It’s time to take the Pope Francis-approach to climate change,” makes it clear where he stands.

Also commenting on COP26 and Laudato Si’ was Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Before the conference wound up its deliberations, on Nov. 5, she framed a monthly social media message to ELCA members as a call to personal stewardship, for caring for God’s creation Quoting Psalm 24The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it — she said:

This is not our planet. It is God’s earth that has been given to all of us and we are called to be tending God’s garden. Everything, whether we consider it to be animate or inanimate is filled with the spirit of God. This is a beautiful earth, and our temporary home. Let’s take care of it. Be well, dear church.

Let’s take care of it. Eaton’s message, one of a series of homilies she puts up periodically on YourTube, echoed ELCA’s 1993 social statement “Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope, and Justice.” (The 12-page statement is up for revision and updating this year, with a public comment period scheduled in the autumn.) Eaton also cited Laudato Si’, recalling when it came out in 2015:

It got a lot of attention from other world religious leaders and faith communities. So I received a phone call from a religion reporter at the Chicago Tribune wondering if we, as Lutherans, and others were chiming in on this because the pope had issued an encyclical. And I said, “Oh, no, we in 1993 issued our social statement Caring for Creation.” The benefit of the pope issuing an encyclical was that it became not just a boutique issue for a few, but the faith issue for all of us.

A similar note was was sounded by John Allen, longtime Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and the Boston Globe, who said:

Laudato si’ seems destined to go down as a major turning point, the moment when environmentalism claimed pride of place on a par with the dignity of human life and economic justice as a cornerstone of Catholic social teaching. It also immediately makes the Catholic Church arguably the leading moral voice in the press to combat global warming and the consequences of climate change. [qtd. in Wikipedia]

For all of that, Laudato Si’ is broadly ecumenical, and that scope was widely hailed when it came out in 2015. “We welcome [that] the Holy Father recognizes that ‘other churches and Christian communities have had a deep concern and a precious reflection’,” said the Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the World Council of Churches in Geneva:

This encyclical proves to all that these are matters at the heart of our Christian faith, and that we as Christians should address them together with all people who care for our common future. This is the time to focus on our shared responsibility as human beings, and the way we as churches should support those who are ready to make the required changes.

Is it too parochial of me to point out that Tveit is an ordained pastor of the (Lutheran) state Church of Norway? His focus here was entirely, and very properly, ecumenical. Care for God’s created world is not limited to Catholics and Lutherans — or to Christians, for that matter — and it long predates 2015. Or 1993. In fact it could be argued, as environmental ethicist Larry Rasmussen of Union Theological Seminary did in a graduation speech at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in 2003, that it goes all the way back to the book of Genesis:

Already for the Yahwist [an ancient source of Genesis], in the oldest biblical strands, the primordial human calling is to till and keep the garden. The Hebrew word for this — abad — literally means “to serve.” Adam (earth creature) serves adama (topsoil, the land), from which adam comes and to which earth creature returns. 

In 2016, during the Catholic-Lutheran commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation at Lund cathedral and Malmö in Sweden, Pope Francis and Bishop Mounib Younan, president of the Lutheran World Federation, returned to the theme of caring for the common home that all humanity shares with other living creatures:

More than ever before, we realize that our joint service in this world must extend to God’s creation, which suffers exploitation and the effects of insatiable greed.  We recognize the right of future generations to enjoy God’s world in all its potential and beauty.  We pray for a change of hearts and minds that leads to a loving and responsible way to care for creation.

That statement, along with one by Rev. Martin Junge, general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, appears on a webpage “Lutherans and Laudato Si” hosted by the Francis of Assisi Academy for Planetary Health at the  Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt in Germany.

The Franciscan website has other ecumenical resources, too, including several links to study guides designed to facilitate dialog, and ecumenical pronouncements from Francis, Eastern Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, who has been in the forefront of faith-based environmental action, among others. It also links to a 2017 Lutheran Study Guide to Pope Francis’ Letter on the Lutherans Restoring Creation website.

The Lutheran curriculum, by Terra Schwerin Rowe of North Texas University, is designed to be used by college, seminary or parish adult education classes. It is quite detailed, and it offers a thorough review of what Lutheran theologians have been up to since at least the 1960s, when scientists first began to confront the problems of environmental degradation and global warming. It’s designed as a four-week series:

  • Week 1: Introduction: Climate Change and Faith
  • Week 2: Claimed By God, Claiming our Calling
  • Week 3: Gathered into an Integral Ecology
  • Week 4: Sent: Eco-Reformation

The blurb at Lutherans Restoring Creation recommends that the curriculum be adapted to adult faith formation sessions, and the Franciscans at Eichstätt-Ingolstadt second the motion. “Lutherans Restoring Creation (LRC) is an exciting new initiative designed to encourage the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) to incorporate care for creation into its full life and mission at all levels,” they add.

The LRC website at https://lutheransrestoringcreation.org/ has a wealth of information, as does an earlier group called LENS (Lutheran Earthkeeping Network of the Synods (at http://www.webofcreation.org/LENS/index.html), out of which LRC grew. The quote from Luther’s Collected Works at the head of this post is from LENS.

One more environmental resource I have to mention is Bishop Eaton’s 2019 column, “All Created Things,” in the denominational magazine Living Lutheran. I think it’s the best thing she’s written on the subject. I’d be willing to argue it may be the best thing anybody has written on the subject (with the possible exception of the Yahwist author of Genesis). Eaton says:

Somehow the church has been heard as setting spiritual against material, that the highest goal is to transcend creatureliness. This attitude discounts the witness of Genesis where “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). Even after the rebellion in the garden, God never stopped caring for creation.

As Lutherans we’re taught to look for law and gospel when we read scripture, or practically anything else of ultimate concern. And Eaton ends her March 2019 column with something I want to keep thinking about until I’ve made it my own:

Here’s the gospel. Human beings are part of the creation. Human beings are connected to everything in the cosmos. Human beings are connected to God. We are not doomed to alienation. That God is more present than we are to ourselves gives us a path to reconnect with God, each other and all of creation. The judgment is that we do not even perceive that the One who created all things is intimately present. The promise is that the One who created all things is intimately present. We—all created things—are family.

While I’ve been focusing (mostly) on Lutheran responses to Laudato Si here, it’s important to recall that when the encyclical came out, according to Wikipedia, it was hailed by the secretary general of the United Nations and the head of the World Bank, among others. And by a joint statement signed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the British Methodist Conference and representatives of the Catholic, Muslim, Sikh and Jewish communities in the UK. The Dalai Lama issued a Twitter message stating: “Since climate change and the global economy now affect us all, we have to develop a sense of the oneness of humanity.”

Care for creation — for our common home — is hardly a joint exercise Catholics and Lutherans. It’s for all of us, in all creation, in every corner, behind us and before us.

Works Cited

Elizabeth Eaton, “All Created Things,” Living Lutheran, March 29, 2019 https://www.livinglutheran.org/2019/03/all-created-things/.

__________. “Spring and Care for Creation,” Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, YouTube, April 1, 2022 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GhRXtQMGr_Q.

__________. “Tending God’s Garden,” Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, YouTube, Nov. 5, 2021 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8vjxWnFnKFo.

Francis, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, May 24, 2015 Vatican website https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html.

“Green Martin Luther Quotes,” LENS: Lutheran Earthkeeping Network of the Synods http://www.webofcreation.org/LENS/luther.html.

“Lutherans and Laudato Si,” Laudato Si’: Common Care for Our Common Home, Francis of Assisi Academy for Planetary Health, Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt https://www.laudatosi.org/ecumenical/lutherans-and-laudato-si/

Larry Rasmussen “Singing ‘The Hymn of All Creation’,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics, 3, no. 9 (Sept. 2003) https://learn.elca.org/jle/singing-the-hymn-of-all-creation/.

Terra Schwerin Rowe, Lutheran Study Guide to Pope Francis’ Letter on Climate Change, Lutherans Restoring Creation website, 2017 https://lutheransrestoringcreation.org/lutheran-study-guide-to-pope-francis-letter-on-climate-change/.

Josh Siegel and Zack Colman, “‘Last chance’: Greens push climate compromise with Manchin,” Politico, April 26, 2022 https://www.politico.com/news/2022/04/26/greens-push-climate-compromise-manchin-00027511.

Griffin Thompson, “COP26 did not go far enough. It’s time to take the Pope Francis-approach to climate change,” America, Nov. 12, 2021 https://www.americamagazine.org/politics-society/2021/11/12/climate-change-paris-agreement-cop26-pope-francis-241827.

Olav Fykse Tveit, “Statement by the WCC general secretary, Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, on the Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of His Holiness Pope Francis on care for our common home,” June 23, 2015 https://www.oikoumene.org/resources/documents/statement-on-the-encyclical-laudato-si.

Wikipedia, “Laudato si'” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laudato_si%27.

[Revised and published May 12, 2022]

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