Making the Earth Covenant at Chicago

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We are in the midst of a massive renegotiation of moral relationships and boundaries. Everywhere we turn we hear reports of agreements made and agreements broken; trust and betrayal; new promises that give us hope countered by conspiracies that send us into despair. We are struggling to set more ethically justified and enduring terms for human relationships, from the most intimate to the most public—from marriage vows to international law. Complementing these struggles, and in many cases precipitating them, are our attempts to renegotiate the relationships between humans and nature—humans and animals, humans and agriculture and sustainable use of natural resources, humans and soil, water, forests and the atmosphere, humans and ourselves, right down to our genes.

It is within this broad understanding of our present situation that I would ask us to consider the revolutionary transformation signaled by recent calls for an Earth Covenant. Such calls have come from across the spectrum of opinion, and from virtually all quarters of the globe—sometimes couched in terms of a “global compact,” as Kofi Annan has framed it; at other times as a “natural contract,” from the title of an influential book by the French philosopher, Michel Serres; but most perceptively, I believe, as a “new covenant with Earth,” as proposed, for example, by Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff and British political theorist David Held.

Covenant-making is one of a handful of metaphors large enough to comprehend the history now in the making and the ethical responsibilities required of us. In the course of the 1990s, as I became engaged in international consultations on the Earth Charter, [1] “covenanting” was the idea that seemed to make most sense of what was happening. People were debating what principles should set the terms for our life together on the planet—to guide the renegotiation of human relationships toward greater justice, respect for human rights, and peace, yes; but also to preserve and restore ecological integrity. Consensus was reached on “Respect and care for the community of life” as our over-arching moral aim, and since 2000, when the Charter was launched in The Hague, thousands of individuals and organizations have pledged to live out its principles in their communities and personal lives.

Current debates on climate change illustrate the power of covenant-making even if it is not named as such in contemporary public discourse. The recent finding by the Supreme Court that the EPA distorted scientific evidence is being rightfully interpreted as a restoration of our covenantal commitment to the search for truth, a sine qua non for the exercise of public reason in a democratic society. The fact that we will not reach effective international agreement on climate change without addressing the responsibility the United States bears for its consequences in other parts of the world raises issues of equity and fairness across national borders, and makes apparent the global covenantal principles that need to be honored. Finally, can we have any realistic expectation that the most daunting challenge of climate change, our need to restore biodiversity and ecosystemic integrity to the biosphere, can be met without an ultimate commitment to, as well as for, nature? And that such a commitment must be made, not only by our political and business leaders, but by all of us?

The term “Earth Covenant” thus involves three levels of meaning: a holistic vision of planetary fulfillment; a universal ethic of justice, human rights, and peace; and a widening of the circle of the moral community to in- clude nature. As the Earth Charter affirms, “all beings are interdependent and every form of life has value regardless of its worth to human beings.” Given the anthropocentric prison in which our society is held captive, this third level of meaning, our universal responsibility to and for nature, is the most radical, and the one that I want to concentrate upon today.

I was first introduced to the idea of covenant by James Luther Adams, who was my predecessor in the field of religious social ethics at Meadville Lombard 1936–1956, and who founded the field of Ethics and Society in the Federated Theological Faculty (including the Divinity School, Meadville Theological School, Disciples House, and Chicago Theological Seminary) in the early 1940s. Adams discovered the importance of covenant as a determining factor in history as a result of his visits to pre-war Germany. Germany lost its Constitution, in his judgment, because of the failure of the churches and cultural elites to exercise covenantally grounded prophetic criticism of public life.

For Adams, history is nothing so much as a making, breaking and renewal of covenants, a struggle between inclusive democratic covenants and oppressive, exclusionary—even demonic—covenants, and between enduring covenantal modes of relationship and more limited, utility-driven contractual ones. As a normative Christian ideal, covenants are defined by the open-ended, unconditional responsibilities each member assumes to and for the well-being of each of the other members and the common good of the life they share. Liberating covenants arise out of gratitude for the life-giving relationships that are the creative matrix of our being; they move between remembrance and promise, with the present always under judgment, as well as pregnant with creative possibilities for the future. They flourish with the practice of the covenantal virtues—justice, steadfast love, forgiveness, truthfulness, peace.

For Adams, God is the covenant-making, covenant-keeping reality upon which we ultimately depend, but Adams also believed that the power of covenant transcended any particular theological formulation and may be interpreted nontheistically, even humanistically. It was therefore possible for persons of diverse religious backgrounds and persuasions to give their ultimate commitment to life-fulfilling covenantal relationships.

Although Adams kept referring me to a little essay by an obscure philosopher, Fritz Kaufman, entitled “The Covenant of Being,” my first and most memorable glimpse of what covenant might mean for our relationships to nature came several years before I encountered Adams and his work, indeed, the day after my arrival in Chicago in September of 1960.

My wife and I, with our two-year-old son, drove from a summer job on Isle Royale National Park in northern Michigan straight into Chicago. The next night we found ourselves participating in a rally at Orchestra Hall sponsored by a Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy. One of the speakers was introduced as a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Joseph Sittler. I will never forget looking down at the stage from the upper balcony and seeing this tall, solitary figure standing alone in the spotlight. Sittler’s speech consisted almost entirely of a poem, “Advice to a Prophet,” by Richard Wilbur.

Sittler read Wilbur’s poem again the next year at the World Council of Churches assembly in New Delhi when he placed the “care of the Earth” on the agenda of the ecumenical movement. The point of the poem, he later wrote, is “single, simple, and absolute: human selfhood hangs upon the persistence of the earth, her dear known and remembered factualness is the matrix of the self.”

It is only now, with the aid of historical perspective, that I can appreciate how extraordinary was this sensibility at the time.

And how deeply covenantal! I owe this insight to Bernard Meland, whose richly empirical and naturalistic theism I also encountered at the outset of my education at the Divinity School. In early works such as Modern Man’s Worship (1934) Meland avowed a position of “mystical naturalism” that became more muted in his later works, but never left him. Meland maintained that “once man has discerned that he is a real child of Earth, he will find himself falling naturally into a feeling of at-homeness in the universe” and that this transformation in worldview can lead to an understanding of God as the sustaining matrix of the cosmic process and occasion the “rebirth” that will recover the “lost transcendence in modern religion.” In his 1962 Realities of Faith Meland argued that the doctrine of creativity, which characterized the theologies of many of the Chicago faculty, presupposed the covenant relationship in which the redemptive concern is primordially intended. We are constituted by our “internal” relationships, covenantal partners with a creative universe, responsible, so far as we are capable, for the flourishing of the entire community of life.

Adams was unique among his colleagues in speaking as forthrightly as he did about the contemporary relevance of biblical covenant, but as Meland saw, the covenantal mythos was never totally lost and was coming increasingly to the fore in an array of new scientific and philosophical movements.

Although Sittler seldom treated “covenant” in his writings, he does suggest in his book, Essays in Nature and Grace, that the Hebrew term “chesed,” which he defines as God’s faithfulness in covenants and relationships, is one of the closest equivalents in the Hebrew scriptures to the English term “grace.” This is why categories such as “life-as-nature” and “life-as-history” are useless for grasping the structure of biblical faith. Sittler often said that reality is known only in relations, what he called an “ontology of community, communion, ecology.” Moreover, “Being itself,” understood as a relation, not an entity, required humans to spiritually honor—“behold” was his word—the “immaculate integrity of things which are not (ourselves).” Sittler’s special gift was his poetic capacity to evoke the way grace is a goodness built into the constitution of nature and how it comes leaping forth when humans respond with joy and fidelity to the variety of life. But what he and Meland were expressing in their reflections on nature and grace and their shared insistence on humanity’s fundamental embeddedness in the natural world was not very distant from what others among their colleagues were also saying through their distinctive disciplinary and religious vocabularies.

It is time for a roll call of these colleagues. Acknowledging that this is a very incomplete list, I would name the following faculty of the Divinity School and the Federated Theological Faculty in the several decades following the Second World War as prophetic of a new covenantal relationship with nature.

Charles Hartshorne, whose Whiteheadian panentheism and panpsychism provided the metaphysical grounds for a new natural theology, rigorously argued in a series of works beginning with Beyond Humanism in 1937, and whose book Born to Sing is a classic in ornithology.

Daniel Day Williams, whose 1949 essay “The Good Earth and the Good Society” was the opening salvo in the reformation we are discussing, and who joined Sittler and Meland in the first organized effort to respond theologi- cally to the environmental crisis in the 1960s, the Faith/Man/Nature Group.

Sidney Mead, who in his last essays in American religious history argued that we moderns “can find a stable identity only . . . as (we) sense a mystical unity with all of life on its ‘immense journey’,” and that “the ultimate and absolute evil [is] the refusal to take the oath of loyalty to life.”

Bernard Loomer, who toward the end of his life moved in radically pantheistic directions, his controversial essay, “The Size of God,” identifying God with nature in the widest range of its creative power.

John Hayward, student of Hartshorne and passionate field naturalist, who tried to establish the field of religion and art at the Divinity School in the 1950s, and who like Sittler drew upon poetry, and biblical and modern myth, to make visible the grace of God in nature.

Mircea Eliade, whose phenomenology of the sacred erupting in nature through the camouflage of the secular inspired numerous studies of sacred place and time, as well as a renewed appreciation for the ontological dimensions of human being.

Charles Long, who in dialogue with Eliade and Mead, exposed the horrors in American attitudes toward nature, while also taking issue with historicist admonitions to move beyond nature, arguing that “such a movement fails to take account of the evil inflicted on nature . . . the basic problems that confront us as a nation today, the exploitation of our natural resources and of blacks and other racial minorities, stems from the fact . . . that we have not taken the integrity of nature seriously.”

Langdon Gilkey, who argued for nature as an “image of God,” which we must respect as we do in the case of another person, and who cast his thought on nature in forthrightly covenantal terms, writing at one point that “the theme of creative being, betrayal, judgment, and the promise of rescue runs throughout our common Scriptures and illumines . . . our present situation vis-a-vis nature.”

Gibson Winter, chair of the Ethics and Society field while I was a student, author of works such as Liberating Creation, who elaborated the implications of the artistic process for what he called an “ethic of dwelling” that could recover the original fabric of belonging between humans and nature.

James Gustafson, with long-standing concerns for bioethics, who drew upon his theocentric ethical perspective and the “relational” value theory of H. Richard Niebuhr to develop a moral theory of our participation in the interdependent processes of nature.

Alvin Pitcher, a leader in the Chicago freedom movement, who after a sabbatical at Holden Village in the Cascade Mountains, wrote Listening to and Caring for the Creation, a guide to the transformation of the churches into creation communities—eschatological anticipations of what the future could be, a book that concludes with his personal draft of what a covenant with creation might entail.

To this list we must add the graduates of the Divinity School who studied under these generative figures, and who carried forward their trajectories of work, most especially:

John Cobb. No theologian has had a greater impact on the religion and environment movement than John B. Cobb, Jr. His “conversion” in 1969 to the view that the ecological crisis is the most overwhelming problem fac- ing humankind led him to make a fresh appraisal of the naturalistic outlook of his teachers, Hartshorne and Meland. Cobb has devoted his formidable powers as a process theologian to challenging the reigning “economism” and preparing for a transition to a “just, participatory, and sustainable” society. The works he coauthored with evolutionary biologist Charles Birch and steady-state economist Herman Daly are classics in the field.

Philip Hefner, student of Sittler, editor of the journal Zygon, and convenor of the long-running symposium at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on “The Epic of Creation,” who has led the dialogue between religion and science in the Hyde Park community and addressed issues of ecology in his own constructive theology.

Douglas Sturm, student of Meland, who has made ecological responsibility central to his work on religion, ethics and law. In his keynote address, “A New Axial Age,” delivered at the Divinity School 2000 symposium on World Theology, Sturm argued that because of its underlying ontology of internal relations the Earth Charter marked the beginning of a new historical epoch. (We should note in passing that the symposium honored the work of Steven Rockefeller, chair of the Earth Charter drafting committee, who has written extensively on the religious philosophy of John Dewey, and whose advisor at Union Seminary was Daniel Day Williams.)

We should also highlight the work of Jerome Stone, who has proposed a non-theistic interpretation of American religious naturalism and process thought; Catherine Albanese, the preeminent authority on the history of “nature religion” in America; and John Opie, a founder of the field of environmental history; as well as Peter Bakken, Steven Bouma-Prediger, William French, Dana Horrell, Michael Hogue, Robert Keller, and Stephen Rowe.

A full account of the legacy we are celebrating would need to take note of the contributions of many others—including recent faculty and graduates of the Divinity School and the larger Hyde Park theological community. William Schweiker, new head of the Marty Center, has a strong theoretical and practical interest in environmental ethics. New Testament scholar David Rhoads at LSTC is leading a “green reformation” in Christian ministry and church-life, and bearing powerful witness to the legacy of Joseph Sittler. Meadville-Lombard graduate Clare Butterfield, inspired by process theology, directs “Faith in Place” in Chicago.

No wonder Peter Raven, eminent alumnus of the University of Chicago and Director of the Missouri Botanical Gardens, called last fall at our conference “Without Nature?” for the Divinity School to mount a major response to the crisis of species extinction and collapse of ecosystems now engulfing the world.

Why should this understanding of a new covenantal relationship with nature have happened here?

The adoption of an evolutionary perspective by the early “Chicago School” no doubt prepared the ground for these mid-century developments. But most members of the early faculty assumed a human-centered model of evolutionary “progress.” Meland’s mentor, G.B. Smith, was unique in his “cosmic” orientation. Without question, process thought, from James and Bergson through Whitehead (“organismic thinking” as Meland preferred) was an important influence. But I doubt if any particular systematic rendition of this general form of thought can account for such a profound religious response. There have been scholars at Chicago influenced by Whiteheadian metaphysics, such as Henry Nelson Wieman, who did not stress the value of nonhuman life; and there are others on our list who were outright critical of what is variously characterized as “process theology.”

Other factors were at work as well—the shock of World War II with its mass destruction of human and other life, rising consciousness of threats to the survival of the planet from the nuclear arms race, the environmental effects of the post-war industrial economy, and the vigorous reaction of citizens, United Nations agencies, academic leaders, and some churches, especially the World Council of Churches, determined to set a new course for world civilization. We so easily forget that appreciation of our dependence upon, and disregard for, the natural world and our common humanity has come again and again in the course of our history only to be set aside, and virtually forgotten, because its moral implications are so challenging to our most operative covenants—to make the world over in our own image.

In Seeds of Redemption (1947) Meland was uncompromising in his condemnation of the “crushing effects” of the post-war American lust for power and affluence. Convinced that “the creative event of our time, the event that is now in process of emergence, and which takes precedence over every other event because of its importance to every other event of our time, is the shaping of a world community,” and his call for a repentance “so great that the elemental reverence for life, to use Schweitzer’s phrase, will well up in our being to repudiate all acts, decisions, and organizations that seek to prostitute life for what is less than life.” As he told the Divinity School Student Faculty Conference in 1954, “What this means to me theologically is that we are a generation that has been thrust back on the most elemental level of spiritual need.”

The nuclear threat in particular galvanized the Divinity School faculty in these years. In the spirit of the University’s missionizing founder, Jim Adams worked with Chicago nuclear physicist Leo Szilard and Charles Hartshorne in 1945 to build bridges between religion and science, and prepare a statement of conscience on nuclear power that was signed by sixty-nine faculty and published in the New York Times. Two years later, Dean Loomer proposed (unsuccessfully) to the Federated Theological Faculty that they urge the University to stipulate political and moral conditions for the continuance of its atomic energy research—conditions such as the requirement that the U.S. government commit to a constitutional convention for a world government! Thirteen years later, shortly after I heard him speak at a SANE rally, Sittler wrote, “When atoms are disposed to the ultimate hurt then the very atoms must be reclaimed for God and his will.”

We also must give due respect to personal experience, for many of these persons were intensely devoted to a particular place, of birth or adoption, that meant the “world” to them—Hartshorne, Loomer, Meland, Pitcher, and Opie in their cabins on the Lake Michigan Dunes, Cobb up in the mountains near Claremont, Gilkey sailing off the coast of Maine, Gustafson returning to his hometown of Niagara and the great white pines on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

If Sittler were here to answer our question, he would likely reply that it was an unsolvable “mystery of the mind’s attention.” But I think we can go further. What happened in Chicago in the mid-twentieth century was a prophetic response to the demands of the time by a community of sensitive and deeply concerned scholars of religion. Adams, Sittler, Meland, and their colleagues and students showed the enduring power of the covenantal mythos to unfold in new and creative directions. They rediscovered and reframed the lost connections between covenant, cosmology, and politics. And they made clear, if it was not sufficiently clear before, that our relations to nature, as well as to one another, are a matter of ultimate significance, involving both our creation and our redemption.


This article was originally published in Criterion, Vol. 46, No. 1 (Winter 2008) pp. 11-17. Reprinted by permission.

[1]. For further information: The text of the Earth Charter, and updates on the Earth Charter Initiative, may be found at www. Professor Engel’s essay, “The Earth Charter as a New Covenant for Democracy” may be found in the February archive for the Martin Marty Center Religion and Culture Web Forum at

  • J. Ronald Engel

    Over the course of his life Ron Engel has been a high school biology teacher, park ranger, community organizer, Unitarian Universalist minister, professor, and author.

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