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Daring to Dream: Religion and the Future of the Earth

An Awakening Alliance 

Daring to Dream: Religion and the Future of the Earth

by Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim

There is a dawning realization from many quarters that the changes humans are making on the planet are comparable to the changes of a major geological era. The scientific evidence says we are damaging life systems on Earth and causing species extinction at such a rate as to bring about the end of our current period, the Cenozoic era, and ushering in the Anthropocene. No such mass extinction has occurred since the dinosaurs were eliminated 65 million years ago by an asteroid.

By endangering Earth’s species, we also endanger ourselves – Photo:  Chloe Mueller, C.c. 2.0

By endangering Earth’s species, we also endanger ourselves – Photo: Chloe Mueller, C.c. 2.0

Our period is considered to be the sixth major extinction in Earth’s 4.6 billion-year history, and in this case humans are the primary cause. Having grown from two billion to six billion people in the twentieth century, we are now a planetary presence devouring resources and destroying ecosystems and biodiversity at an unsustainable rate. The data keeps pouring in that we are toxifying the air, water, and soil such that the health of all species is at risk. Climate change is already evident in melting glaciers, thawing tundra, flooding of coastal regions, as well as more erratic weather conditions.

This increasing damage to ecosystems reveals we are making macrophase changes to the planet with microphase wisdom. We are not fully aware of the scale of the damage we are doing and are not yet capable of stemming the tide of destruction.

For decades, environmental issues were considered the concern only of scientists, lawyers, and policy makers. Now the ethical dimensions of the environmental crisis are becoming more obvious. What is our moral responsibility toward future generations? How can we ensure equitable development that does not destroy the environment? Can religious and cultural perspectives help solve environmental challenges?

Among environmentalists, a conviction deepens: though science and policy approaches are clearly necessary, they are not sufficient to do the job of transforming human consciousness and behavior for a sustainable future. Values and ethics, religion and spirituality, are important factors in this transformation. In 1947, historian Arnold Toynbee declared: “The twentieth century will be chiefly remembered by future generations not as an era of political conflicts or technical innovations but as an age in which human society dared to think of the welfare of the whole human race as a practical objective.”

We might expand Toynbee’s statement to declare, as did Aldo Leopold, that the twenty-first century will be remembered by this extension of our moral concerns not only to humans, but to other species and ecosystems as well — the Earth community as a whole. From social justice to ecojustice, the movement of human care pushes out in ever widening concentric circles. The future of our withering planet, a commitment to its protection and restoration, may depend on the largeness of our embrace.

Our challenge now is to identify the vision and values that will spark a transformation toward creating such a multicultural planetary civilization. A sustainable future requires not just managerial or legislative approaches — the saving of forests or fisheries — but a vision of that future, evoking depths of empathy, compassion, and sacrifice for the welfare of future generations. We are called to a new intergenerational consciousness and conscience.

Currently, we in the ‘developed’ world are easily distracted from these tasks by mass consumerism, media entertainment, and political manipulation. Our plundering power is almost invisible to the majority of people in the world who are intent simply on feeding their families or, in affluent regions, on acquiring more goods. We need a serious wake-up call from our slumbers.

But solutions must inspire participation and action rather than frighten or disempower people. The next generation is searching for ways to contribute to a positive future. Life in all its variety and beauty calls to us for a response — a new integrated understanding of who we are as humans. This is not only about stewardship of the Earth, but about embracing our embeddedness in nature in radical, fresh, and enlivening ways. Humans, Earth and the rest of life are bound in a single story and destiny. It is no longer a question of “saving the environment” as if it was something out there apart from us. We humans are the environment, and it is us — shaping our minds, nourishing our bodies, refreshing our spirit.

The task of articulating an integrated vision and identifying effective values requires new language, broader framing, inspiring images, captivating metaphors, and, most of all, new stories and dreams. As cultural historian Thomas Berry says: “If a society’s cultural world — the dreams that have guided it to a certain point — become dysfunctional, the society must go back and dream again.”

If a society’s cultural world — the dreams that have guided it to a certain point — become dysfunctional, the society must go back and dream again.
— Thomas Berry

Currently the dreaming meets an impasse. There’s a puzzling disconnection between our growing awareness of environmental problems and our ability to change our present direction. We have failed to translate facts about the environmental crisis into effective action in the United States and beyond. We are discovering that the human heart is not changed by facts alone but by engaging visions and empowering values. Humans need to see the large picture and feel they can act to make a difference.

Failing to Dream

We could name many complex factors that have contributed to this impasse, the failure of dreams. Here is a brief summary of a few of them:

  1. Institutions and leadership — in business, in government, and in religion — put up resistance. In business, a corporate mentality operates with a single-minded mantra that economic growth is an unqualified good and ecological cost accounting is unnecessary. Corporate power resists attempts at environmental regulations and insists on economic globalization abroad without limits or restraints.

    Government at all levels is no longer widely perceived to be democratic or trustworthy, but rather controlled by special interests, deadlocked by culture wars, and driven by the enormous ambitions of politicians.

    Organized religion, too, has lost much of its moral authority. It is either beset by its own scandals, preoccupied with sexual politics, mired in fundamentalism, or divided by theology and fearful of science.
  2. Academic hierarchies and research traditions minimize the role of values. One indication of this is the tendency of many scientists to claim value-free knowledge and shun advocacy. Further, post-modern deconstruction tends to question the basis and motivations of traditional values and commitments. Though deconstruction is by no means nihilistic in its intentions, for some individuals its discourse can result in relativism or non-engagement with real-world issues or solutions.
  3. American cultural assumptions — media-tailored soundbites, anti-intellectualism, instant solutions — deepen the impasse. A consequence of a pragmatic, quick-fix framing of issues is an American antipathy toward complex answers and an absence of understanding of how historical changes take place over time.

    An expectation of speed — fast results, fast food, fast relief, fast cars — also holds true for many of the movements pushing for political, social, and environmental change. Activism is often characterized by impatience with anything that obstructs the quick realization of goals. The result is we now have something of an aversion to long-term efforts and long-range planning that demand time and commitment.
  4. Faith in technology has become all encompassing. Utopian myths of science and progress automatically regard technology as the answer to life’s challenges and the way to usher in a better world. Accordingly, any restraints posed by a precautionary principle about the potential harm of certain technologies on humans or the environment are overridden by an almost blind belief in the saving power of technology. The “technological fix” becomes a means of solving any difficulty, taking away pain, extending life, and manipulating nature and genes to human ends. Management and control of nature are the driving forces behind the unrestrained embrace of technology. The strength of the precautionary principle in Europe (as regards genetically modified foods, for example) suggests that these issues can be approached differently.

Signs of Hope: Religions Embrace the Earth Community

Against these imposing obstacles, we must learn to cultivate long-term perspective and persistence — also a sense of history, mystery, and humor. Evidence for these is not impossible to find.

And despite frustrating trends, hopeful dreams are stirring, especially within religious communities, which have traditionally contributed to liberating movements for social justice and human rights. The Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology has been leading these efforts for two decades, both within academia and beyond.

Until recently religious communities have been so absorbed in internal sectarian affairs that they were unaware of the magnitude of the environmental crisis at hand. To be sure, the natural world figures prominently in the major religions: God’s creation of material reality in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; the manifestation of the divine in the karmic processes underlying the recycling of matter in Hinduism and Jainism; the interdependence of life in Buddhism; and the Dao (the Way) that courses through nature in Confucianism and Daoism. Despite those rich themes regarding nature, many religions turned from the turbulent world in a redemptive flight to a serene, transcendent afterlife.

Yet as scholars and theologians explore environmental ethics, religions are starting to find their voices regarding the environment. The monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are formulating original eco-theologies and eco-justice practices regarding stewardship and care for creation. Hinduism and Jainism in South Asia, and Buddhism in both Asia and the West, have undertaken projects of ecological restoration. In China there is a movement called Ecological Civilization drawing on the traditions of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. Indigenous peoples bring to the discussion alternative ways of knowing and engaging the natural world.

All of those religious traditions are moving forward to find the language, symbols, rituals, and ethics for encouraging protection of bioregions and species. Religions are beginning to generate the energy needed for restoring the Earth in such practices as tree planting, coral-reef preservation, and river cleanup. A major Interfaith Rainforest Initiative was launched in Oslo in June 2017 at a conference sponsored by the United Nations Development Programme and the Norwegian government.

Photo:  MEANS

Photo: MEANS

Some of the most striking examples of the intersection of religion and ecology have taken place in Iran and Indonesia. In June 2001, May 2005, and April 2016, the government of Iran and the United Nations Environment Programme sponsored conferences that we attended in Tehran, which focused on Islamic principles and practices for environmental protection. The Iranian Constitution identifies Islamic values for appropriate ecological practices and threatens legal sanctions against those who do not follow them. In Indonesia projects of tree planting and restoration draw on the Islamic principle of maintaining balance (mizaan) in nature. Students in Islamic boarding schools are taught such principles and are encouraged to apply the Islamic doctrine of trusteeship regarding the environment.

In the United States, the greening of churches and synagogues leads religious communities to search out sustainable building materials and renewable energy sources through Interfaith Power and Light. Many religious leaders, including evangelicals, are focusing on climate change as a moral issue that will disproportionately hurt the poor around the world. Greenfaith and the Green Seminary Initiative have been working effectively with Jewish and Christian organizations to promote environmental awareness and climate justice.

The Sisters of Earth, a group of Roman Catholic religious women in North America, sponsor a variety of environmental programs drawing on the ecological vision of Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme, who describe the story of the universe in both sacred and scientific terms. In North and South America native peoples are speaking out about the negative effects of resource extraction and oil pipelines. The Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has written books and led several international symposia on religion, science, and the environment. Pope Francis’ stirring encyclical Laudato Si, is one of the most significant contributions with its call for an integral ecology that responds to “the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor”. Together Francis and Bartholomew issued a call to action on September 1, 2017.

And finally, a conviction is emerging in some quarters that we need a new “species identity” to rally humanity to a stronger sense of solidarity than nationhood, faith, or family can muster. It means coming to understand our place within this vast field of force we call nature and evolutionary history. It means embracing a new story, a universe story, one that evokes awe, wonder, and responsibility, and inspires humans to influence evolution in benign directions. This is what the Emmy award winning Journey of the Universe film and book offer.

“The time of innocence … is now past,” declares Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book The Evolving Self. “It is no longer possible for mankind to blunder about self-indulgently. Our species has become too powerful to be led by instincts alone. Birds and lemmings cannot do much damage except to themselves, whereas we can destroy the entire matrix of life on the planet. The awesome powers we have stumbled into require a commensurate responsibility. As we become aware of the motives that shape our actions, as our place in the chain of evolution becomes clearer, we must find a meaningful and binding plan that will protect us and the rest of life from the consequences of what we have wrought.”

With an emerging sense of global responsibility comes an emerging global ethics, such as that contained in the Earth Charter. This is a document which outlines the complex interdependency of humans and nature and provides an integrated vision of three related areas for a viable future: ecological integrity; social and economic justice; and democracy, non-violence and peace.

As all these examples illustrate, a many-faceted alliance of religion and ecology along with a new global ethics is awakening around the planet. Attitudes are being reexamined with alertness to the future of the whole community of life, not just humans. This is a new moment for the world’s religions, and they have a vital role to play in the emergence of a more comprehensive environmental ethics. The urgency cannot be underestimated. Indeed, the flourishing of the Earth community may depend on it.


Header Photo: Jason Jenkins, C.c. 2.0 sa