Evocations of Grace: Writings on Ecology, Theology and Ethics / Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril

Article excerpt

Evocations of Grace: Writings on Ecology, Theology and Ethics. By Joseph Sittler. Edited by Steven Bouma-Prediger and Peter Bakken. Grand Rapids, Mich.; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000. xiii + 242 pp. $20.00 (paper).

Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril. By Sallie McFague. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2000. xiv + 251 pp. $18.00 (paper).

These two groundbreaking volumes are particularly timely, given the controversy over the issue of global warming, and the unified response of the religious community to the Bush administration's retreat from the developing policy on climate control. In their books Sittler and McFague set the stage for a theology of nature and make clear why Christian denominations should be engaged in dialogue on environmental issues

Joseph Sittler (1904-1987) was Professor of Biblical Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School, retiring in 1973. Until his death, he served as Distinguished Theologian in Residence at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. Martin E. Marty, in his foreword to this volume, describes Sittler as a "diviner" of Scriptures, a rhetorical theologian whose vision of the creation as a vehicle of grace was expressed as early as 1961 in a major speech at the World Council of Churches in New Delhi, where his "cosmic Christology" was met with disdain by those who failed to recognize echoes of Irenaeus and of St. Paul in his letter to the Colossians.

Peter W. Baaken in his introduction points out that in his New Delhi speech, as well as in the corpus of his writings, Sittler does not argue for a shift from "redemption-centered" to "creation-centered" theology, but for an expansion of the circumference of redemption to embrace the whole of creation. Evocations of Grace is a compilation of some of Sittler's major public addresses over the years, in which he carries this theme forward by making a powerful case for the experience of grace in nature, and for an ethic of environmental justice that may inform Christian action for the future. For Sittler, issues of justice shared common theological ground with ecology. "What pollution is to natural ecology, injustice is to social ecology," he wrote (p. 11).

Sittler defines grace as "all that God does to crack nature open to its God, to restore it to his love and to its intended destiny" (p. 35). Grace in human experience comes only as humanity is recognized as an aspect of nature, a part of the created order. Christ as the light of the world in the prologue of the Gospel of John cannot lighten humanity if he does not also lighten the world into which humanity comes. Sittler writes "the way forward is from Christology expanded to its cosmic dimensions, made passionate by the pathos of this threatened earth, and made ethical by the love and the wrath of God" (p. 48).

While the first part of the book develops and expands on these themes in short presentations given over the years by Sittler, there follows an extended theological and philosophical argument in the form of excerpts from Essays in Nature and Grace (1972). Here he goes in depth into the development and definitions of grace in history, with a special emphasis on traditions of Eastern and Western orthodoxies. Affirming that Eastern Orthodoxy developed more fully the cosmic dimensions of grace and of Christology that appear in Paul's letters to the Romans and Colossians, Sittler also sees in Augustine and some of the western theologians echoes of Irenaeus and his cosmic vision. He feels, however, that the focus on sin as personal human behaviour that has dominated western theological discourse since Augustine has narrowed the scope of grace in a way that had been damaging to humanity and to the Earth.

In final chapters that address the modern crisis, Sittler develops the theme of evangelism as care for the whole created order. He draws conclusions from his incarnational Christology for nature. …