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Reformation Sunday in our Lutheran parking lot was cheerfully Wisconsin-ish. Pastor Doug’s red stole paired nicely with the old-timey mackinaw wool plaid he wore under it to offset the November chill. For the laity, about half of the red jackets/caps/shirts etc. also displayed the white “flying W” emblem of the University. We sang “A mighty fortress …” a capella, into the wind, and we all heard the booming organ in our imaginations. Some of us were at Pastor Anne’s ordination the day before. She dyed her hair a rich deep red for the occasion. It matched her covid mask and the sneakers under her vestments. Red velvet cake at the reception afterward.

Against all this, it felt significant when two of my Lutheran pastors, separately called for “a New Reformation.”

I know this stuff from deep history. I remember the film strip they showed us each year around this time at Hudsonville Christian School. How young Martin was a bit of a partier, how he had a crisis of faith during a thunderstorm and promised to become a monk if God saved him from it (which seemed kind of weak to a Midwestern kid), how he became angry with the indulgences scam and wound-up nailing 95 theses on the church door. And how this somehow rescued the church from those rotten Catholics, thereby saving true Christianity and altering the course of history.

Hearing my Lutheran pastors mention a New Reformation therefore rang with a certain gravity, so I lingered and asked Pastor Karen: “Is this ‘New Reformation’ stuff simply more of the old ‘Ecclesia semper reformanda’ stuff that we often talk about in protestant circles or are we talking about a game changer in faith like the one prompted by Martin Luther?” and “Are these discussions happening among your pastor colleagues?”

She assured me that it was the game-changer sense and linked it to a greater sense of inclusion and unity and an evangelical (not the political sense) opportunity entwined with a broad array of communication options and cultural tremors linked to covid realities and digital technology.

I pressed her and she sensed my frustration until she assured me that “inclusion and unity” also meant a greater concern for the wider creation.

I hope so.

Reformation Day 2021 coincided with the opening of the COP26 meeting in Glasgow. “COP” stands for “Conference of the Parties,” signatories to a 1994 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. At COP21 (2015), the US signed the Paris Agreement to limit Greenhouse gas emissions and invest in renewable energy. President Trump withdrew in 2017. President Biden re-entered the agreement on the first day of his presidential term and had hoped to show up to COP26 with modest progress on climate policies to show. He was stymied by a coal-baron Democratic senator who lectures the peasants from the back of his yacht and monolithic opposition from the other side.

This week the three newest justices motivated the Supreme Court to take up the fossil fuel industries’ case questioning whether our EPA can even regulate greenhouse gas emissions. This interplay illustrates the moral vacuum of our time. At best, the church speaks tepidly and cautiously against climate crisis injustice but more often it chooses not to choose sides – effectively showing tacit approval as the church of empire.

I own the fact that I am a bit of a one-trick pony here on The Twelve, but I am convinced and dismayed that my church (North American Protestantism, broadly speaking) does not own the urgency of the Climate Crisis and the damage and injustices that result.

The Climate Crisis is no longer a technical issue to be solved. We know what we need to do, but what we need to do makes us uncomfortable or offends our politics or is inconvenient, so we dismiss it with platitudes and deflection. Addressing the Climate Crisis is a question of values, of sacrifice in the name of loving our kin, of lament for our inaction. religion’s wheelhouse.

A church that is comfortable with its impotence in the face of the greatest challenge that humanity has ever faced has no witness and is not faithful – especially when it is culpable in the extreme injustices to poorer and marginalized people and to the rest of creation.

Five hundred years after the first Reformation, unwillingness to address the Climate Crisis is the storm causing crises of faith among young Christians. I know this personally, from conversations with college and university students – including those from our Christian colleges. I know several who have left their faith.

Five hundred years later, the breezy reality that the desires of wealth and privilege (with a Christian gloss) should always trump the urgency of addressing climate crisis injustices is our heresy. It’s the equivalent of the indulgences scam and its motivations are the same.

How ironic, in the face of calls for a new reformation, that the most powerful Christian voice for protecting and serving creation is that of the Catholic pope. Five hundred year on, the winds have shifted and the currents are different. We need to move the bow through the wind and set our sails on a new tack.

But where will we find our moment’s Martin Luther, our radical monk? And despite my allusions to Luther here, it’s unfair to lay that burden solely at the feet of our clergy. Look in the mirror. It’s probably a supremely reformed thing to say that we are all called to be Martin Luthers.

And If you need inspiration, look for it among the young activists, the marchers, the hunger-strikers, the agitators, and firebrands. That seems to be where the moral clarity is pooling.

Tim Van Deelen

Tim Van Deelen is Professor of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He grew up in Hudsonville, Michigan, and graduated from Calvin College. From there he went on to the University of Montana and Michigan State University. He now studies large mammal population dynamics, sails on Lake Mendota, enjoys a good plate of whitefish, and gains hope for the future from terrific graduate students. 


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I think you’re right.

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      So here’s a problem. If, with the Lutherans, we are devoted to “justification by grace through faith apart from works of the law,” how do we reorient ourselves to the necessary works we have to do to meet the crisis, when the laws of thermodynamics are thoroughly ungracious? Or, if with the Reformed Church’s Heidelberg, we say that we “are right with God” only by “true faith,” how do we say that, in real terms, we are right with God only by accepting our climate responsibilities and necessary lifestyle sacrifices? Do the (capital E) Evangelical convictions of our Reformation heritage cripple our necessary response, or can we reframe them such that they help us and inspire us to radical obedience in climate and lifestyle terms?

      • Tim Van Deelen says:

        Thanks Daniel. I’m not sure I understand. If the Evangelical convictions of our faith cripple our response, it seems like they then run right into the clear call to love our neighbors. Addressing the climate crisis is about loving our neighbors and the only difference is the extreme urgency. If our convictions prevent that loving, they need to go. Seems to me.

  • Debra K Rienstra says:

    You go, Tim! As always, it is exceedingly difficult for us to see the huge issues right in front of our faces. They are so large, so we focus on small things and miss our calling. We need prophets like you!

  • Debra K Rienstra says:

    Good question, Dan. Could the answer lie in the good ol’ third use of the law? We obey and serve not to earn God’s favor but out of gratitude for what God has already done. We love what God loves because we love God.

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