Book Review of EcoActivist Testament by H. Paul Santmire

The Author’s Early Work

I first encountered the work of the Rev. Dr. H. Paul Santmire when I began my M.A. in Theology, 20 years ago. By then, Santmire had already been publishing academic books of ecotheology for 40 years, with his first book, Brother Earth: Nature, God, and Ecology in a Time of Crisis published in 1970. Santmire was an early ecotheologian in an emerging discipline.

In my dissertation, I describe Santmire’s theology as revisionist, meaning that he seeks to work within classical Christian thought and texts to offer more nuanced ways to interpret God, nature, and humanity so as to better respond to the ecological crisis. In Brother Earth¸ he suggests different ways of understanding the role of humans, including “overlord, caretaker and wondering onlooker.”[1]

My own ecotheology work goes in a different direction, exploring how human experience, and the wisdom from natural sciences and cosmology, can inform and transform the Christian tradition to be more responsive in our unprecedented time. So it has been a while, then, since I have read or worked with Santmire’s ideas. When the opportunity arose to read his latest, and by his own admission, likely his last, book, I looked forward to learning from him again.

A Different Kind of Book

EcoActivist Testament is a very different book than the ones I read before; this one is not an academic text. It is deliberate in not containing any footnotes or a bibliography. Santmire, instead, wants to have a conversation, he says, with those who, like him, are Christians concerned about and committed to responding to the ecological crisis and seeking to make healing change in the world.

Santmire calls himself a Christian ecoactivist, one who has been responding to the ecological crisis precisely as a Christian, for about 60 years. As he comes to the waning time in his life, he is sparking a conversation with the younger, newer Christian ecoactivists of today. In this book, he says,

“I have been on a faith-journey with nature for more than fifty years, and I want to tell you about some of the things I have learned along the way – autobiographically, biblically, theologically, and spiritually – in personal faith explorations that I hope will encourage you.”[2]

Outline of the Chapters

Indeed, that is what Santmire offers in this small volume. In nine short chapters, Santmire begins from his earliest days of vocation toward Christ and nature, and moves through the book offering insights framed around key personal experiences he has had.

He talks about the enduring power the example of Saint Francis of Assisi has had for him, and what that saint can teach us ecoactivists about the need to act, and the power of a single step in the right direction. In this chapter, Santmire sets a biblical lens for the rest of the book.

He then goes on to explore his experiences in a forest, and his transformative love of trees in their “treehood,” meaning in their own subjectivity reality and value, and what these experiences teach him about the immediacy of God in his life. The chapter on the forest, “Entering a Forest: Spiritual Practices and the Immediacy of God,” is one that I found deeply meaningful and moving.

Later chapters describe his experiences with a cattail pond, the Niagara Falls, a visit to Hawaii, and more.

Reflecting on Our Own Experiences

We are encouraged, throughout the book, to reflect on our own experiences within the natural world, both of the beauty and mystery of nature itself, and the experiences we have of God in such places. We are encouraged to pray, and to pray regularly; to open ourselves up to both the creativity and destructivity that exists within nature, and what that teaches us about the triune God.

A Deft Touch

We are also introduced to key terminology and problematic trajectories in Christian thought, including anthropocentrism and spirit-matter dualism. Santmire does so in a delightedly deft way; he is able to identify them and suggest powerful correctives in gentle, yet convicting language, framed within the powerful spiritual experiences he has had over the years. Santmire also indicates his sensitivity to feminist, anti-racist and Indigenous wisdom throughout the book.

Differences in Theology

Santmire’s theology does continue to be somewhat different from my own in this book. For example, he speaks of nature as though it is something ‘out there,’ as distinct from the human person. I am quite intentional and explicit in my own work about emphasizing the ways in which humans are part of the natural world, interconnected and interdependent with all.

That said, Santmire’s work is no way contradicts me in this; he is simply attending to one aspect of understanding the world. The spiritual reflection and wisdom he presents cohere well with my own work, and provide additional ways to move within an ecological spirituality. By attending to nature as the other, Santmire does so in a profoundly respectful way that is deeply theocentric (God-centered). In doing so, he is able to lift up the profound value of the natural world as it exists, outside of human thought or purpose.

A Deep Ecological Spirituality

Over the course of reading the book, I was drawn into Santmire’s deep ecological spirituality that is a result of his careful attention to the natural world, theological inquiry, and abiding love of the God we know through Jesus Christ. Santmire has entered the conversation in this book as he engages with the natural world: humbly, prayerfully, and attentively, out of and for a love of God and the world that God so loves. I am reminded of the model of “wondering onlooker” that he suggests in his earliest work, and think that he has fleshed that out, in his own life, in a beautiful, complex way. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that his guiding scripture passage is this: “For God so loved the cosmos…” (John 3.16).

“Do Nothing”

Finally, Santmire does not leave us simply in the place of spiritual contemplation; this is written by and to Christian ecoactivists for a reason: we are, each of us, called to respond to the ecological crisis out of our faith. And so, he ends the book on what may seem to be a surprising piece of advice for our journey: to “do nothing”.

In the last chapter, “Doing Nothing: The Political Mission of the Church and the Global Ecojustice Crisis,” Santmire describes doing nothing as “putting down roots into the good soil of the nurturing Christian community so that you can the more faithfully and the more forcefully go public in due course…”[3]

Doing nothing, for Santmire, isn’t meant literally. It is, instead, referring to what I call Sabbath activities: such things as going for a walk in the woods. Hugging a tree or working in your garden. Going for a swim in a lake or taking your dog for a walk. Watering your plants, gazing upon the birds at the feeder, watching the sunset. Spending time with your family; cooking a good meal. In other words, “doing nothing” means doing those things that allow us to slow down, be nurtured and nurturing, and trust. As he says, “Catch your breath. The Lord’s in charge.”[4]

It is from this place of rest and renewal, Santmire says, that we can then go out and respond to the ecological crisis, that we can go and live out our discipleship. That he says this is made all the more convincing for the wisdom and reflection that he has shared throughout the book, to this point. Santmire, after 60 years as an ecotheologian, Lutheran minister, and Christian ecoactivist, knows what he is talking about. And, after all those decades of commitment and seeing a world more in crisis now than ever, he still has hope. It is this hope, and this encouragement, that he is leaving here for those of us coming up behind him, those of us with many more years ahead on the path of Christian ecoactivism.

Wherever you are at on your own path, I invite you to read this book. There is much here to inform, nurture and nourish. Thank you, Rev. Dr. Santmire, for your wisdom, and above all, for your faithfulness. For God so loved the cosmos.

[1] H. Paul Santmire, Brother Earth: Nature, God and Ecology in a Time of Crisis (New York: Thomas Nelson, 1970).

[2] H. Paul Santmire, EcoActivist Testament: Explorations of Faith and Nature for Fellow Travelers (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2022), 2-3.

[3] Ibid., 122.

[4] Ibid., 127.

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