This past week, I went to a theological forum near Hartford, CT. There was a presentation on Bonhoeffer’s profound theological thought. The presentation was spectacular and made many relevant connections with the various worldwide crises that we face today, and I could make a nice post about that presentation, and someday I may just do that, but what I want to write about today is something else that happened during that day’s presentation.
After an introduction to Bonhoeffer, his life and his origins and his thoughts, we broke up into small groups. In my small group, I found myself across the table from an interesting fellow with big side burns and a pleasant smile. He looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place him.
Then, at the end of the small group session, I was finally able to place him. This was H. Paul Santmire.
A couple years ago, I was able to read some of Santmire’s works. At that time, I was just beginning to understand the intersections between theology and ecology, and his books were helping to foster and further that understanding.
Then I began to inquire after the author. In doing this, I came to understand that, when he began writing on the subject, which happened even prior to the formation of my current denomination, the ELCA, nobody knew what to do with him. I knew enough of the context and the time to discern that his must have been a lonely road.
In talking with Santmire, however, one does not immediately get that sense. He was friendly, and unlike many an author whom I have met, he was not detached or higher or mightier than I. He was very human, very accessible in our meeting.
At the time in which he started writing, it was common for theologians to see nothing in ecologists and ecologists to see nothing in theologians. The two were, in many ways, living in separate worlds on the same earth. He, however, struck out to bridge that gap.
There were other theologians exploring this area, such as Joseph Sittler, but where he was and in the circles in which he moved Santmire was something of an oddity.
Yet, he stuck with it. He kept writing about this strange subject, one which people at Harvard, where he obtained his doctorate, thought was fruitless. He kept at it. He saw that Christians must care for the environment, despite looking like a fool for seeing this, looking like a fool in a number of “important” eyes.
I imagine that whole congregations and audiences thought Santmire irrelevant, but time marched onwards, and as it did, as the scientific community became more outspoken about the harms that the environment was suffering at human hands, more people began to care about the environment, and in time, people from many congregations and many faith backgrounds came to care about it as well.
Fast forward to today, where whole jobs, such as professorships and NGO positions, are based on the intersection of care for the earth and faith. Look at Interfaith Power and Light. Look at Duke Divinity School. Look at the movements that have at least partially come out of such an intersection as faith and the environment, such as the local food movement and food justice.
So, in my eyes, H. Paul Santmire stands vindicated, and I told him as much and then asked him if that was indeed what he felt. He responded that he now basks in the work of others, who have taken further steps in this intersection of faith and care of the earth. In fact, that is why he was at this presentation.
He is no star in our contemporary notion of such a thing, whatever that may be. He did not appear to me to be arrogant or vindictive, and I think it would be hard to make such a case. Rather, as he put it, he is one who is now basking in the work of others.
And I see Christ in that. I see Christ in care for others, in this case through care of the earth and all beings who live in it. I see Christ in the holy stubbornness of not giving up. I see Christ in the ability to bask in the good works being done through others.
It was great to meet Santmire, and it was awesome to see one small way in which Christ has been working in order to produce larger effects.
There could be more to say about the way Christ has been working in our predecessors, and it could then be pointed out that Christ is our ultimate predecessor. But I’ll leave you with that for now, as I go out to bask in a world that is wrestling with its mortality and wrestling with God, in a threshold space where the incarnation can be seen still at work.