Whole-Earth Ethics for Holy Ground

The Development and Practice of "Sacramental" Creation Spirituality

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Stephen L. Hastings
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Rowman & Littlefield
    , October
     166 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


That Stephen Hastings is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ who earned his PhD from Boston University with a concentration on ecological ethics and creation spirituality should be borne in mind when reading this book. Hastings begins by offering a genre-defining overview of late 20th and early 21st century writings about what he calls “sacramental” creation spirituality. Hastings’s listing of Ian Barbour, Loren Eisley, Aldo Leopold, Annie Dillard, Matthew Fox, Brian Swimme, Thomas Berry, and Rosemary Radford Reuther in one paragraph (1) is but one example of the number and breadth of his dialogue partners. It is concerning that at other points (xxii) he also calls on insights from Alexander Schmemann, the Orthodox theologian, without any reference to his theological tradition or liturgical practice, which differs markedly from almost all the other authors cited. (The full bibliography [131-34] is a very useful summary of recognized contemporary authors in the field.) 

The heart of the book (chapters 3, 4, and 5) is comprised of Hastings’s summaries and (re)interpretations of the writings of Maximus the Confessor (580-662), Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464), and Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). These are legitimate choices whose writings are individually and collectively important to recover in ecological circles, so often dominated by the hard sciences only. The footnote references to secondary literature are almost all in English and therefore are very limited sources to draw out the arguments from and about such important figures. (The single German reference to Cusa’s writings is from an article dated 1969 on the topic of evolution.)

In the book’s lengthy introduction, Hastings states that “sacramental pertains to the ability of something to be a sign, symbol or revelation of God” (xi). At the bottom of the same page (as well as on 87n1) he refers to the World Council of Churches’ (dated) document Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (1962) with reference to the different way “sacrament” is understood in the latter. A similar dissonance occurs when the author states that in this book “ontology is held to mean created being as the physical expression of divine or metaphysical intent” (xviii) yet in a later chapter uses “ontology” in the more conventional understanding of the term to describe Christ’s presence in the Eucharist (69-73).

When reviewing “the Via Positiva, Panentheism and Sacramentalism” in chapter 2, Hastings raises up St. Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of Creature.” Unfortunately these insights are only coupled with Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Home (2015) in the book’s “Postlude.” This is most regrettable because this papal teaching rests on an invitation to dialogue, which is a major concern for Hastings. In this same “Postlude” Hastings incorrectly implies that Pope Francis endorsed the entirety of the UN’s Earth Charter (2000). In fact the pope refers to it once in a document of one hundred and eighty pages and adapts the language of the Earth Charter to exhort us to a new level of commitment to ecological concerns. Interestingly, where Hastings refers to a “creation-centered … interpretation … of sacramentality” he quotes Leonardo Boff who, writing in 1954, speaks of “the sacramentality of all things.” In a post-Laudato Si world, authors today would use “all fellow creatures” not “things” to avoid the reification implied by “things.”

Hastings is generous in his summary of Teilhard’s Mass on the World. Yet can there ever be a mass that is not “on the world”? All the elements which Teilhard cites are intrinsic to the Roman Catholic Mass, and for that matter to the Eucharist of all the churches that follow a structured liturgy. Pope John Paul II noted that the Mass was celebrated “on the altar of the world” in his encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia (2003, article 8) and Pope Francis treats the Eucharist at length in Laudato Si (articles 235-36).

Whole Earth Ethics breaks no new ground, despite citing a plethora of authors from varying faith traditions. Many Catholics will welcome the inclusion of insights from Matthew Fox and Thomas Berry. Others would have preferred greater use of Jame Schaefer’s Theological Foundations for Environmental Ethics: Reconstructing Patristic and Medieval Concepts (Georgetown University Press, 2009). It is hard to imagine that any serious treatment of Teilhard today would not include the writings of David Toolan, such as At Home in the Cosmos (Orbis, 2001). 

Rather than putting authors in dialogue with each other about ecology and spirituality (especially spirituality termed “sacramental”) Hastings cites numerous authors without giving their religious affiliation or academic pedigree. Leonardo Boff has popularized the Latin American proverb “we drink from our own wells.” In a book like this it would have been very important to indicate the well from which the cited authors drew. The result is a collection of juxtaposed insights in a spare hardcover book whose price is excessive.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kevin W. Irwin is Professor of Liturgical Studies & Sacramental Theology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.

Date of Review: 
October 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Stephen Hastings is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.


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