Larry L.RASMUSSEN. Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. pp 368. $45.00. ISBN 978-0-19-991700-6. Reviewed by Ann MICHAUD, Fordham University, Bronx, NY 10458
Larry Rasmussen has once again penned a masterwork uniting ecological ethics and religious practices broadly envisioned. If the Earth is to survive, ethical theory and spiritual praxis are equally vital. Science informs. Religions motivate. A transformation combining these concepts is urgently needed at this moment in time on our planet.
In Part One, Rasmussen weaves together the elements that unify humans with all earthly life. He prompts us to consider the choices available to us. Despite seemingly dire circumstances, there are options. We must take into account the effects of our decisions on all life, not just on our human selves, if we are to be moral creatures. In truth, we do not possess perfect knowledge. Yet we are not free to turn away from the impact we have had on this sphere. We need to re-tune our ethics to promote the continuation of life to the best of our collective abilities.
The new key called for is an “ethics that undertakes a grand shift, a shift from the human self and human society as the gated moral community to a moral universe embracing all life and its generative elements. A shift, if you will, from the ego to the ecosphere as the starting point and boundary of moral reflection.” (111) This change is essential because our recent focus almost solely on the human has not yielded flourishing, but detriment for the planet and for ourselves. “Modernity’s famous turn to the denatured and abstracted human subject as the site of all significant moral knowledge and consideration was a huge error; and now, because of cumulative human presence and power, it is a destructive one.” (111)
Rasmussen calls for change and imagination. His ethics necessitates recognizing transcendence, mystery, and the sacred in-but-beyond the experiences of life. We ought to stretch ourselves past the conventional. We should look to the margins for novel perspectives. All strata of society must be engaged. Only then can we effect long-lasting, integral, even paradigmatic transformation. Through all of this, comprehension of the complex workings of adaptation is imperative.
The ethics required must be rooted in sound theory. The author considers numerous possibilities. But his central criterion is that theory should not remain theoretical. A viable ethics ought to be put at the service of living life well. To be realistic, it needs to incorporate an economic vision which co-joins ecology and economics. “The most basic issue for ‘eco-nomics’ and ethics is how we live, and for what; and it is at this crucial juncture that moral and religious convictions and commitments are vital to a successful transformation and transition.” (150) This holds true for communities as well as for individuals.
In order for ethical theory to be effective, Rasmussen images us becoming both tillers and keepers. For farming to be productive in the long-term requires proper cultivation of the soil. The process entails both taking from and giving back, lest the soil become deficient in nutrients. Just so, we need to attend not only to our own ecology and economics, but to a third element as well – equity. It is requisite that we consider who our neighbor is and think well on the question. Conflicts will arise, so no simplistic response will be sufficient. But effective ethical theory and method will necessitate global perspective.
As an interlude to the second part of his book, Rasmussen explores Earth-honoring faith as discipleship, way, call, and praxis. He then investigates a series of oppositional viewpoints: asceticism and consumerism; the sacred and the commodified, with the results of each perspective envisioned through the element of water; mysticism and alienation as seen through the lenses of Rene Descartes and Karl Marx; prophetic-liberative practices and oppression, exemplified in the lives of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mohandas Gandhi; and wisdom and folly. The intricacies of the arguments are worth investigating. The author concludes his tour de force with an invitation to participate in the process of transformation.
Throughout his work, Rasmussen articulates the dilemmas we have encountered in our all-too anthropocentric world. He analyzes these problems utilizing a diversity of illustrations and perspectives. The religious ethics in a new key which he proposes meets the basic “thin-thick” ethical criterion. It is broad enough to be useful in a variety of contexts. It is specific enough to delineate areas in which to commence the essential transformative process. Rasmussen’s writing style is clear. His resources are scholarly and wide-ranging. I propose Earth-Honoring Faith would be a valuable resource in an ethics, theology, or spirituality course, or as a source for further reflection or study.