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A Reply to the IRD on the Council of Bishop's Pastoral Letter

A Reply to the IRD on the Council of Bishop's Pastoral Letter

On November 3, 2009 the Council of Bishops approved Pastoral Letters and a Foundation Document on God's Renewed Creation: A Call to Hope and Action, which deals with the interrelated realities of ecological degradation, global poverty, and nuclear arms proliferation from the perspective of our faith in the living God revealed through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Of course, any statement dealing with the complexities of these realities, as well as an understanding of the perspective of faith on them, is bound to be criticized from a variety of perspectives.  The bishops do not mind hearing criticism since our whole purpose is not to have the last word, but to begin a conversation in the Church, which we hope the Spirit of God can use in changing our lives, our Church, and our world.

While I appreciate thoughtful criticisms from people about our statements, I feel a responsibility to reply to criticism which attempts to simply dismiss the bishops' statement and thus to discourage Church members from taking it seriously. Such is the case in the commentary from the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) by Mark D. Tooley, "The Religious Left's Prophecies of Doom."
Mr. Tooley begins by lambasting the bishops for the 1987 statement, In Defense of Creation, which rejected the policy of nuclear deterrence and advocated for the elimination of all nuclear weapons.  To Mr. Tooley, such a position by the bishops was just "surreal."

I will not even attempt to address how simplistic is Mr. Tooley's portrayal of the causes of the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, I will concede that the position of the bishops in 1987 was out of the mainstream of the time in that it was calculated to reject the kind of thinking associated with the teaching of Reinhold Niebuhr known as “realism." That conventional wisdom in Washington, D.C. still loves "Niebuhrian realism" was on display recently as commentators applauded President Obama's speech when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize and implicitly justified giving such a prize to a president who had just escalated the war in Afghanistan.   The premises of Niebuhr's own theology, on which the so-called ethics of "realism" is based, should be subjected to a rigorous theological examination.  More and more theologians are taking up the task of exposing the sub-Christian or even atheistic presuppositions in Niebuhrian realism. Their critiques of Niebuhr are summarized by Stanley Hauerwas in his Gifford Lectures, With The Grain of the Universe: The Church's Witness and Natural Theology (Brazos Press, 2001, especially Pp. 113-140).  As Hauerwas says, in the thought of Niebuhr, we may not have anything more than "a complex humanism disguised in the language of the Christian faith" (p. 131).  He adds that "it is the work of the Spirit to teach Christians that their claims about the way things are, though always susceptible to being refuted on rational grounds, are not without persuasive power and/or the support of argument" (p.208).   In other words, this so-called "realism" which Niebuhr preached during the Cold War is being criticized for its theological weaknesses and also its limitations for addressing the completely different historical realities we face today.  Insofar as the bishops in 1987 refused to succumb to this brand of "realism" and attempted to articulate what it would mean to live according to an authentic Christian vision, they should be applauded, even if they may have been ahead of their times.  Anyway, the advocacy of the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons is no longer a "surreal" position in light of the trajectory of the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program (CTR) advocated by former Senator Sam Nunn (D) and Senator Richard Lugar (R).
Mr. Tooley makes the unproven assertion that the Church is losing members because of a "frequent preoccupation with politics."  I think the Church is losing members because of many reasons. The main ones are that we lost our mission and became an ingrown institution, we failed to plant new congregations where people were moving, and we failed to transform our existing congregations into missional communities centered in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. While I think that there have been statements made by officials of the Church over the decades which were not appropriate, those distractions should not be confused with the main issues facing our Church.
At any rate, what about this accusation that these current statements of the bishops are political?  Certainly, they deal with realities which demand a political response as well as a personal response.  The bishops' statement does not attempt to do anything but speak to the need for human societies and human beings to respond to these realities from the perspective of Christian faith. It is not appropriate for the Church to retreat from realities in the world just because they have a political dimension. To do so would be to succumb to the heresy of Gnosticism, which flees from creation and history into a purely spiritual realm.
The challenge for a statement such as Renewing God's Creation is to find the right balance between general principles and specific policies.  No Church statement will ever find just that right balance, and there will always be room for criticism that it was too general or too specific, or both.  Statements are not the final word, but the beginning of a conversation in the Church.  The bishops have offered these statements to open up the conversation within our Church so that we may seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit to change our lives, our Church and our world.
It appears that Mr. Tooley totally rejects all of the principles expressed in Renewing God's Creation.  He seems to imply that there is no ecological crisis that should concern anyone, that perpetual toleration of nuclear weapons is not a major problem, and that, because China and India have witnessed an increase in the prosperity of their own citizens, there must not be a problem with global poverty. I wish I could share this form of optimistic, sunny "realism."

Mr. Tooley makes a theological statement which I fear is at the root of the whole attitude manifested in his article. He accuses the bishops of "prioritizing earth over people." I presume he is implying that, because human beings are created in the image of God, we human beings are more important than the earth, and we are so distinct from the earth as it be separable from it. I would agree that human beings are given a distinctive role in creation by being created in the image of God, but I think it is a very distorted reading of the book of Genesis to suggest that human beings are not created by God as an integral part of the life of the earth, or that human beings are not given by God a responsibility to be stewards of the earth. Indeed, in Scripture, human beings are so integral to creation that there is no salvation of human beings conceivable apart from bodily resurrection and the ultimate transfiguration of the world as "a new heaven and a new earth." Since earth is our home, and God has placed the responsibility for it in our hands because we have been given freedom and reason, then how can one even speak sensibly about 'prioritizing earth over people"? This statement which Mr. Tooley makes, almost as an offhand remark, is not unusual.  In fact, it has been the dominant perspective of the "modern" era. But, nowadays, most people realize that this dualistic attitude of human beings apart from creation represents the ideas of Descartes and Bacon at the beginning of the modern era, but it is not consistent with a biblical perspective. Part of our task today is to help people to realize that we have tended to read Scripture through the lens of modernists, and that this modernist perspective has helped create the ecological problems we confront.