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Saving Creation, Nature and Faith in the Life of Holmes Rolston III

Christopher J. Preston.
Published by Trinity Press International in 2009

Holmes Rolston was a mainly unnoticeable, slightly unconventional parish pastor in a small and irrelevant village in rural Virginia. His church elders fired him, despite his family’s pedigree of many generations of distinguished Presbyterian ministers, because he seemed more concerned with preaching about celebrating and protecting God’s revelation in the beauty of nature than in the Westminster Catechism. He thought the Bible was more interested in God’s world than in our dogma. It was fortuitous that he was fired by the church, as he went on to become a world-famous philosopher and the “father of environmental ethics.”

Socrates is reported to have said that every man should be married, for if you marry well, you will live happily ever after; and if you marry badly, you will become a philosopher. Perhaps it could be said as well that every person should try to serve the Lord in ministry, for if you have a fine church with wise and loving people, you will live happily ever after as a pastor beloved by his congregation. If you have a difficult church of difficult people, you will become a philosopher and really count in the world.

In 1997, Rolston was invited to present the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh on the ethics of environmentalism. The invitation to give the prestigious and long-standing Gifford Lectures, presented in 1900 for example by William James on “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” is only offered to the world’s most influential thinkers in theology and nature. After this honor, the Duke of Edinburgh presented Rolston with the prestigious Templeton Prize in 2003, a prize which is awarded to persons who have charted new paths for the human condition, especially regarding the interface of science and spirituality. With this he joined the ranks of such noticeable figures as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Mother Teresa, and Billy Graham. He became the friend of kings and queens but remained the champion of the interests of the common man and woman in their natural concern for life down on the ground.

Saving Creation is the compelling life story of this creative man, Holmes Rolston. He is celebrated worldwide for his advocacy in protecting the earth’s biodiversity and for his critical work reconciling evolutionary biology and Christian faith. Christopher J. Preston based this straightforward biography on extensive library research and personal interviews with a host of Rolston’s close associates from different periods of his fascinating life. This volume traces his story from a country schoolhouse in the Shenandoah Valley to the Atomic Physics Laboratory. Its chapters include “Southern Grounding,” “A Pastor Gone Wild,” “Rocky Mountain Philosopher,” “Global Environmental Ethics,” and “Theology for a Green Earth.”

Preston persuades us that more than any other thinker in contemporary life, Holmes Rolston has a compelling tale to tell about the place where God, nature, and humanity meet. He documents the evolution of Rolston’s environmental philosophy, from his idyllic childhood in Shenandoah Mountains of Virginia to his Presbyterian ministry in a village near his birthplace, and finally to his ground-breaking work reconciling biology and theology. Rolston’s pursuits were often outside the mainstream and ahead of his time, leaving him an outsider among his peers and a figure of considerable controversy. He challenged the notion of a human-centered value system and looked deeper to embrace the intrinsic value of plants, animals, and ecosystems. Despite nearly universal criticism and resistance, he continued undeterred in his calling and his passion. With his invitation to present the Gifford Lectures and his subsequent winning of the Templeton Prize, Rolston’s intellectual achievements and singular stature were recognized worldwide, a gratifying confirmation of his bold and pro-found contributions to the intersection of modern science and religion.

Achieving the distinctions that marked his life was a challenge for Rolston, which Preston documents carefully. Rolston understood society’s failure to recognize nature’s moral and religious significance at a time when few wanted to hear about it. He declared that he had to fight both theologians and scientists to get them to take nature seriously. He took a philosophical turn and found that the philosophers of science thought a philosophy of nature was too romantic. He spent his lifetime studying nature and in the process made its issues a world agenda, analyzing the place of humans in the ecological matrix of this planet, and hence of the universes. He concluded that the enthralling fruitfulness of nature and God’s infinite generosity in its plenitude is the center of its sacredness.

Preston’s account of this significant life is highly readable, entertaining, and instructive. It includes touching depictions of the personal moments in Rolston’s life that generated the turning points in the development of his groundbreaking ideas. This book is a fascinating intellectual biography. It should be required reading for every pastor and church elder in the world. Anyone who is disillusioned with church and the faith these days will be startled and heartened by the claims of this volume, and may well take another look at the value of the worshipping community if he or she reads this inspiring book.

Many folks tell me lately that they do not like organized religion anymore. I ask them whether they would rather have disorganized religion. Of course, they do not say what they mean in this complaint. They mean they do not find much gratification in institutional religion—churches, synagogues, mosques, and their liturgies. My prescription is for them to read this book and discover the imperatives they face if they wish to be honest and decently responsible folk in God’s wide and wonderful world. They may rediscover how important a role fine church people like Rolston continue to play in this world of nature and of grace.

J. Harold Ellens

J. Harold Ellens, Research Scholar, Department of Near Eastern Studies, University of Michigan