Toward a Better Worldliness

Ecology, Economy, and the Protestant Tradition

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Terra Schwerin Rowe
  • Minneapolis, MN: 
    Fortress Press
    , April
     244 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


As Protestants celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, weather patterns are intensifying, habitats and ecosystems are disappearing, and lives are at stake—human and other-than-human lives. What, if anything, does the Protestant tradition have to offer the crisis of climate change? Terra Schwerin Rowe ventures an answer to that question in Toward a Better Worldliness, appealing not to a doctrine of creation, as most ecotheologians do, but to one of the defining confessions of Protestantism: the doctrine of grace.

The subtitle of the book points the reader to the pieces of Rowe’s puzzle. Noting both the damage that neoliberal capitalism has done to the environment as well as the mixed legacy of Protestantism in relation to capitalism, Rowe identifies the ecological need not for an anti-economy (the default position of many ecotheorists) but instead an alternative economy. This alternative economy would not oppose ecology but work with it. Her project, then, is to imagine the contours of such an “eco/nomy.”

Rowe’s constructive argument hinges on an understanding of grace as both “unconditioned and multilateral,” a proposal she builds over the course of several chapters in which she carefully engages theological and philosophical theories of the “gift” alongside Protestant (primarily Lutheran) conceptions of grace. What renders grace a gift rather than a debt is its unconditional nature. Classically God’s free gift, uncompelled and significantly unilateral, has secured that unconditionality. The problem with unilateral conceptions of gift and grace, however, is that they cut off the open circulation of gifts, often in ways that uphold the power of the giver over the receiver. Yet reciprocal giving—the return of a gift, albeit altered—can give rise to other problems. Namely, it can too easily become a sort of “capitalized return on investment” that likewise secures the power of the original giver. Neither completely escapes a logic of indebtedness.

Rowe insightfully observes that all the primary theorists of the gift, whether advocates of unilateralism or reciprocity, assume that gift-giving is inherently bilateral. She offers a corrective: let us acknowledge that gift-giving in fact happens across a matrix of multilateral relations. This would secure unconditionality without sacrificing the circulation of gifts. In a fundamentally relational world in which creatures co-constitute each other, grace emerges as a gift that is both unconditioned and multilateral: it is the continual circulation of a multitude of gifts.

Among the advantages of this type of eco/nomy is its recognition that humans are utterly reliant upon and constituted, not simply by a creator-redeemer God, but by myriad gifts of the other-than-human world. Rowe is careful to point out that “grace… is not the same as interconnection,” which can leave us as vulnerable to harm as open to grace (172). What an eco/nomy of unconditioned and multilateral grace can do, however, is offer the opportunity “for a different type of encounter, a kind of love given with the understanding that it may not be a good, capitalizing investment for the giver” (172). For those of us who enjoy not only socioeconomic but species privilege, this is a grace worth pondering.

By the book’s end, one is certainly convinced that approaching climate change through this new theological aperture will be of benefit. We might say that Rowe builds a solid foundation for a new ecotheological edifice, although a more appropriate metaphor may be that Rowe aerates the soil of a specifically Protestant ecotheology, churning up and making available theological nutrients heretofore deemed irrelevant to ecological considerations. I expected more unfolding of the ecotheological implications of this alternative eco/nomy at the end of the book—a few more seeds planted in the aerated soil. We can hope that those will be forthcoming in future work from Rowe.

Rowe’s orientation to the traditions she engages is one of the most refreshing aspects of this book, which serves as a worthy model of constructive Christian theology for a new millennium. She neither jettisons the Lutheran tradition that has shaped her nor constricts her own vision for the sake of orthodoxy. Instead of attempting to retrieve some “true” Luther, she calls for genuinely creative, constructive engagement. In such an approach, she says, “we would find that the gift of reformation theology, like the unconditioned gift, is itself an extended communication with the tradition, dispersing through many trajectories, rather than a gift that must be returned to its origin” (146).

She also offers a fine model of how to place one’s interlocutors into conversation with one another in order to effectively develop a new and original perspective. That is, Rowe’s own voice is not always as strong as the reader might wish, yet strikingly, her original constructive proposal comes through clearly and unmistakably in the way she carefully places other voices in critical conversation with each other: she performs scholastically the very model of multilateral gift-giving that she proposes.

This book is a worthy contribution—a gift!—to a range of conversations: theories of gift, contemporary engagements with the Protestant tradition, ecotheology, and theology and economics. Scholars, graduate students, and advanced undergraduate students will all learn from its erudition and its keen insights.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Krista E. Hughes is director of the Muller Center and associate professor of religion at Newberry College.

Date of Review: 
September 30, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Terra Schwerin Rowe is assistant professor of religion and ccology at the University of North Texas. Her work–including Toward a Better Worldliness: Economy, Ecology, and the Protestant Tradition (Fortress Press, 2017), conference presentations, and journal articles–focuses on critical analyses and constructive reinterpretations of Protestant theologies from the perspective of feminist and environmental concerns.


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