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The Alliance of World Religions and Ecology

By Mary Evelyn Tucker
[© Mike Brinson/Getty Images]

The world's major religions are often regarded as preservers of traditional views and behaviors, and thus conservative in their outlooks. What should not be overlooked is that religions can also be liberating and capable of provoking social change. Although religions do not immediately spring to mind as catalysts for environmental action, the moral authority and institutional power of religions means they are well situated to help effect a change in attitudes, practices and public policies in respect to sustainability.

Clearly religions have a central role in the formulation of worldviews that orient humans to the natural world and the articulation of rituals and ethics that guide human behavior. In addition, they have the institutional capacity to affect millions of people around the world. Islam, Hinduism and Christianity each represent more than one billion people.

The size and complexity of the problems we face require collaborative efforts both among the religions and in dialogue with other key domains of human endeavor such as science, economics and public policy.

Defining Religion

A broadened definition of religion is helpful for understanding this convergence of world religions and ecology. Religion is more than simply a belief in a transcendent deity or a means to an afterlife. It is, also, an orientation to the cosmos and our role in it. Religion thus refers to cosmological stories, symbol systems, ritual practices, ethical norms, historical processes and institutional structures that transmit a view of the human as embedded in a world of meaning and responsibility, transformation and celebration. Religion connects humans with a divine or numinous presence, with the human community and with the broader Earth community. It links humans to the larger matrix of mystery in which life arises, unfolds and flourishes.

Nature, meanwhile, provides a revelatory context for orienting humans to abiding religious questions about the cosmological origins of the universe, the meaning of the emergence of life, and human responsibility for life processes. Religion thus situates humans in relation to both the natural and human worlds with regard to meaning and responsibility.

For many religions, the natural world is understood as a source of teaching, guidance, visionary inspiration, revelation or power. At the same time, nature is also a source of food, clothing and shelter. Thus, religions have developed intricate systems of exchange and thanksgiving around human dependence on animals and plants, on forests and fields, on rivers and oceans.

Religions have been significant catalysts in coping with change and transcending suffering while at the same time grounding humans in nature's rhythms. The creative tensions between humans seeking to transcend this world and yearning to be embedded in it are part of the dynamics of religions. This realization leads to a more balanced understanding of the possibilities and limitations of religions regarding environmental concerns. Many religions retain otherworldly orientations toward personal salvation outside this world; at the same time they have fostered commitments to social justice, peace and ecological integrity in the world. There are new alliances emerging now that join social justice with environmental justice. Concern for how poor communities are being adversely affected by climate change has given rise to intense discussions regarding "climate justice."

In this spirit, religious leaders are increasingly speaking out for protection of the environment. Leaders such as the Dalai Lama, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew [featured in this issue], Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Pope Benedict have all spoken out on behalf of the environment. In December of 2009, at a historic gathering of the Parliament of the World's Religions in Melbourne, the environment was a major topic of discussion. Many religious leaders also sent messages to the Copenhagen climate conference. The SGI played a major role at the conference and continues to support concern for the environment as well as promotion of the Earth Charter, a statement of a global ethics for a sustainable future that integrates ecological integrity, social and economic justice, democracy, nonviolence and peace. A unifying framework for care for the larger Earth community, the Charter has been embraced by many religious communities around the world. In addition, in the United States, Interfaith Power and Light has contributed to new awareness in religious congregations of their carbon footprint. The film Renewal has documented eight case studies of grassroots religious environmentalism. Thus, as key repositories of values and as indispensable motivators in moral transformation, religions are playing an increasingly important role in projecting persuasive visions of a more sustainable future.

The Academic Field

The historian Lynn White observed that our attitudes toward nature have been consciously and unconsciously conditioned by our religious worldviews: "What people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things around them. Human ecology is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny--that is, by religion." (Science, 1967) This perspective articulates one major orientation in which the field of religion and ecology has emerged within academia over the last 15 years. While it is still a relatively new field, the academic study of religion and ecology is drawing on other disciplines and thinkers to develop theoretical, historical, ethical, cultural and engaged dimensions.

From 1996-98, an international conference series took place at Harvard University's Center for the Study of World Religions (CSWR). The goal was to examine the varied ways in which human-Earth relations have been conceived in the world's religions. The project was launched to provide a broad survey that would help ground a new field of study in religion and ecology. Acknowledging the gap between ancient texts and traditions and modern environmental challenges, it drew on a broad method of retrieval, reevaluation and reconstruction.

The Harvard conferences were also designed to foster interdisciplinary conversations that drew on the synergy of historians, theologians, ethicists and scientists as well as on the work of grassroots environmentalists.

An interfaith panel on religion and ecology in Israel organized by the Sulha Peace Project [© Eliyahu McLean]

The scholars were engaged in critically retrieving aspects of the religious traditions for reexamination and reevaluation in the contemporary context. This has been part of the dynamic unfolding of religions historically as they have struggled to balance orthodoxy with the urgencies of adapting to new circumstances or cultures.

Religious traditions have never been monolithic, but have embraced a broad range of interpretive positions ranging from orthodox to reform. Discerning appropriate change and the abiding value of tradition has been an important part of the life of religious teachers for centuries. Jewish rabbis, Christian theologians and Islamic imams in the West and Hindu pundits, Buddhist monks and Confucian scholars in Asia have all been involved with interpretation of their respective traditions over time. The religion and ecology project draws on that ongoing process of discernment and exegesis so as to move toward a constructive phase in which the scholars of the various religions can point toward actual or potential sources of ecological awareness and action from within the particular traditions. The edited papers from these conferences have been published in 10 volumes by Harvard University Press.

The Forum on Religion and Ecology arose from these conferences and was formed at a culminating conference at the United Nations in 1998. The Forum is now based at Yale University where it maintains a comprehensive website and sends out a monthly newsletter (see www.yale.edu/religionandecology). The Forum continues to work within academia and outside academia to encourage the development of religious environmentalism.

Reverence for Earth

The common values that most of the world's religions hold in relation to the natural world might be summarized as reverence, respect, restraint, redistribution, responsibility and renewal. While there are clearly variations of interpretation within and between religions regarding these principles, it may be said that religions are moving toward an expanded understanding of their cosmological orientations and ethical obligations. Although these principles have been previously understood primarily with regard to relations toward other humans, the challenge now is to extend them to the natural world. As this shift occurs--and there are signs it is already happening--religions can advocate reverence for the Earth and its profound cosmological processes, respect for the Earth's myriad species, an extension of ethics to include all life forms, restraint in the use of natural resources combined with support for effective alternative technologies and equitable redistribution of wealth. They can establish a broader acknowledgment of human responsibility for the continuity of life on our planet and help renew the energies of hope for the transformative work to be done.

Within the last 15 years, religion and ecology has emerged as an academic field as well as an engaged force in environmental issues. No doubt it will continue to grow as interest is increasing among students, clergy and lay people as well as religious leaders.

Mary Evelyn Tucker is a senior lecturer in Religion and the Environment at Yale University, holding joint appointments as a research scholar in the Divinity School, the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and the Department of Religious Studies. She is a cofounder and codirector with John Grim of the Forum on Religion and Ecology. Together they edited the 10-volume series from Harvard on Religions of the World and Ecology. She is also the author of Worldly Wonder: Religions Enter Their Ecological Phase (Open Court Press, 2003).

Thomas Berry

Thomas Berry (1914-2009) was a Catholic priest whose writings and advocacy of deep ecology and "ecospirituality," based on an extensive study of the world's religions, continue to have a profound impact on current thinking about the human-Earth relationship and humanity's place and role in the cosmos. The following is from Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community (Sierra Club Books, 2006) edited by Mary Evelyn Tucker. Visit www.thomasberry.org.

A radical shift is taking place within the entire Earth system. Human intelligence is taking upon itself an extensive control and direction of the Earth system that it has never before exercised. This has repercussions throughout the entire religious and spiritual worlds as well as the political, economic, and cultural processes that have so far given the basic meaning and value to human life. If we fail to grasp the dimensions of what is happening we will find ourselves caught in a whirlwind of destruction rather than entering a period of soaring achievement. . . The Earth with its layers of land and water and air provides the space within which all living things are nurtured and the context within which humans attain their identity. If in the excitement of a secular technology reverence for the Earth has diminished in the past, especially in the western world, humans now experience a sudden shock at the devastation they have wrought on their own habitation. The ancient human-Earth relationship must be recovered in a new context, in its mystical as well as in its physical functioning. There is need for awareness that the mountains and rivers and all living things, the sky and its sun and moon and clouds all constitute a healing, sustaining sacred presence for humans which they need as much for their psychic integrity as for their physical nourishment. This presence whether experienced as Allah, as Atman, as Sunyata, or as the Buddha-nature or as Bodhisattva; whether as Tao or as the One or as the Divine Feminine, is the atmosphere in which humans breathe deepest and without which they eventually suffocate. . . Concern for this Earth Community must itself bring about a deeper sense of the Community of peoples upon the Earth.

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