Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Sacraments and Climate Justice
distributed 11/15/19 - ©2019

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Wendy Beth Oliver, of Milwaukie, Oregon. Her generous support helps make this publication possible.

I've spent this week in northern New Mexico, at the beautiful Ghost Ranch retreat center, taking part in a challenging and invigorating course on churches and climate justice. Our leader is Rev. Jim Antal, the author of "Climate Church, Climate World."

Eighteen of us have shared in profound class sessions, a multi-day exercise of holding humanity to account with a "Trial of the Prodigal Species," afternoon hikes in the desert Southwest (artist Georgia O'Keeffe lived and painted a mile away), and wide-ranging conversations over meals and after hours. The entire experience has been a great blessing for me.

In Thursday morning's session, toward the end of the 5-day workshop, Jim talked us through some recent proposals for "a new sacrament" that would be a ritual enactment of our cosmic community. He envisions this new ritual as an addition to the two Protestant, or seven Catholic, sacraments. Jim suggested a liturgy that could be taken into the streets or onto the railroad tracks as we witness for protection of Earth community. Clearly, this workshop has been stretching beyond ordinary notions of activism.

Also in the past 10 days or so, I've read about a very different perspective on sacrament and Creation care in a brand-new book (which is just being released today -- I've been reading a preview copy). Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis includes an essay by Orthodox theologian John Chryssavgis titled, "The World as Sacrament." Instead of centering attention on ritual actions, the Orthodox traditions see Earth itself as a sacrament -- "a mystery revealing the divine in tangible creation."

I've found that this intersection of two quite different Christian traditions, both considering Creation and sacrament, opens up insights and opportunities for those of us who seek to develop strong environmental practices within Christian churches.

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It has been said that Great Britain and the United States are two nations divided by a common language. Not only do those people on the other side of the Atlantic drive on "the wrong side of the road," they talk about ordinary things using the "wrong" words. That's true whichever of the two countries provides your normal point of reference.

As one who grew up with US English, it is confusing that the Brits talk about "the boot and bonnet of a car" (trunk and hood to me), or that a water fountain is a big thing in a park instead of a plumbing fixture where you can get a drink (which they call a "bubbler"). A conversation across such linguistic divides makes us think carefully about our words and assumptions.

So, too, we find several branches of Christianity divided by a common language. My Protestant upbringing does lead me to think of a sacrament as a church ritual. I learned in my confirmation class long, long ago that a sacrament is "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace" -- and that we experience such grace through the liturgical signs of baptism and communion.

More recently, I have learned from Catholic teachers about a far broader sacramental perspective, which tries to discern God's presence in all that we do. In Roman Catholic doctrine, there are the seven specific sacraments, but a Catholic approach is like the Orthodox one in orienting itself around the constant presence of God in all things and all experiences.

I appreciate those Catholic and Orthodox views, but for me, on a daily basis, it still takes real concentration to think beyond a religious ceremony when I hear the word "sacrament." It is far easier for me to grab Jim Antal's ideas about "a new sacrament" than it is for me to grasp the Orthodox meaning of Earth itself as a sacrament. There's truth, of course, in both meanings, and the diversity of those meanings can be an opportunity to discern new truths.

For Chryssavgis, sacrament and incarnation are both ongoing presences. He writes:

Early Christian writers, especially in the East, have normally perceived the incarnation more as a normative movement than an isolated moment. ... That is to say, God always and in all things wills to work the process of divine incarnation. The Word of God assumed flesh two thousand years ago, but that event is only one -- even if the most unique and striking -- in a series of such incarnations.

When God is so profoundly present in the world, he writes that we should never separate or alienate Creation from its Creator. An early Orthodox teacher said that "The visible conceals the invisible and the tangible reveals the intangible." So Chryssavgis has come to believe that,

in our relationship with Creation, we are called to evoke and affirm our interconnectedness with the rest of the world. That is what I call the ecumenical imperative of Creation care. For this sense of interconnectedness reminds us that, in a very distinctive way, the Earth unites us all.

An Orthodox theology gives fresh meanings to theological words that had become overly familiar to me. My ordinary thinking about incarnation tended to surface at Christmas with the baby Jesus. Generally, I have talked about sacraments as church rituals. Fr. John's surprising (to me) language opens ideas about incarnation as the constant presence of God among us in all parts of Earth, and about sacrament as the joyous and hope-filled recognition of that divine presence in all things.

This Orthodox theology doesn't contradict or upset my eco-justice ethics, but it does give fresh energy, appreciation and urgency to our vocation of living in right relationship with the whole Earth community. I confess that my Protestant thought patterns about climate justice have sometimes settled into rather abstract matters of theological ethics. To see Earth as sacrament enlivens my long-held beliefs and behaviors as visceral spiritual realities.

I'm deeply grateful for this week's insights -- from Fr. John Chryssavgis, and from Rev. Jim Antal and the other participants in his course -- and for the deepening of care and commitment which can come as we encounter fresh language and ideas.

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Rooted and Rising -- published by Rowman & Littlefield, and available, of course, on Amazon -- brings together a diverse range of voices to explore spiritual perspectives that can sustain climate activism. The chapters from 21 authors -- all quite personal in style and content, and all very readable -- are divided into seven thematic sections, each with "questions to ponder" and suggested spiritual practices.

The book presumes the urgent reality of climate crisis, and all the contributors know that ongoing work in the climate cause is demanding. The authors share their stories of grief and hope, fear and faith -- writings which I found to be far more important in sustaining movement leaders than another catalogue of details about science or legislation. With stories and testimony from many spiritual and religious traditions, Rooted and Rising gifts us with much needed encouragement about community, spirituality, persistence and hope.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
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