What might be the contribution of religions to the long-term flourishing of the Earth community? If Earth’s life support systems are critically endangered, as the Millennium Ecosystems Assessment Report suggests; if climate change is diminishing the prospect of a sustainable future, as the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change observes; and if species are going extinct, as the Convention on Biodiversity notes, should not religions be engaged? How might religions contribute to our present search for creating mutually enhancing human-Earth relations? What do their problems and their promise matter in an era when humans have so radically changed the face of the planet that geologists call our period the Anthropocene?
It is important to ask at the outset where the religions have been on environmental issues and why they have been so late to participate in solutions to ecological challenges. Have issues of personal salvation superseded all others? Have divine-human relations been primary? Have anthropocentric ethics been all-consuming? Has the material world of nature been devalued by religion? Did the religions simply surrender their natural theologies and concerns with exploring purpose in nature to positivistic scientific cosmologies? In beginning to address these questions, we still have not exhausted all the reasons for religions’ lack of attention to the environmental crisis. Although the reasons may not be readily apparent, they clearly require further exploration and explanation. It may well be the case that the combined power of science, technology, economic growth, and modernization has overshadowed traditional connections to nature in the world religions.
Examples from the past and present make clear that religions have both conservative and progressive dimensions; that is, they can be both limiting and liberating. They can be dogmatic, intolerant, hierarchical, and patriarchal. Or they can demonstrate liberating and progressive elements through compassion, justice, and inclusivity. They can be oriented to both otherworldly and this-worldly concerns – escaping into pursuit of the afterlife or affirming life on Earth. They can be politically engaged or intentionally disengaged, illustrating the complex and contested nature of religion itself. They may invoke a higher spiritual power while still wielding immense political influence. Religious leaders may preach simple living while their institutions have significant material wealth. The nature of religion is complex and often ambiguous, especially in its institutional forms. Moreover, human failings have often led to disillusionment with religions. It is abundantly evident that religious leaders and followers have not always lived up to their highest aspirations.
In examining the varied characteristics of religions as liberating and limiting, both historically and at present, one observes that these characteristics are often more dynamically interwoven than rigidly separate. For example, being bound by tradition, religions have been the source of dogmatism and rigidity. They may favor orthodox interpretations of beliefs and practices. On the other hand, they can show flexibility and transformation over time, as with the Reformation in the sixteenth century that gave rise to Protestantism or with Vatican Council II that occasioned deep institutional changes in the Roman Catholic Church. The ambivalence of religions toward modernity has led to both the resistance and the embrace of change. Such resistance has contributed to the rise of contemporary fundamentalism in many parts of the world. Thus, some religious practitioners reject changing social and sexual values. However, openness to change has caused some traditions to advocate justice for the poor and oppressed, as in the work of Catholic Relief Services, World Vision, Buddhist Tzu Chi, and Green Crescent.
Although most religions have been hierarchical and patriarchal, in the last century they have been increasingly responsive to demands for equity, fairness and justice. However, the expansion of human and civil rights has been an achievement of the last one hundred years, spurred by both secular and religious concepts of justice. Religions have been able to effect change as they participated in this expansion. Now the challenge is to extend this sense of responsibility and inclusivity not only to other humans but also to nature itself.
Religions are often seen as having otherworldly preoccupations, namely concern with salvation in heaven or in an afterlife. However, most religions value this world and have rituals that weave humans into the rhythm of natural cycles. This is a dimension of what we would describe as religious ecology. The incarnational and sacramental dimensions of various religions illustrate this-worldly emphases and concerns. That is, Christianity centers on belief of divine entry into material reality both in the historical person of Jesus and in the Cosmic Christ embedded in the universe.
Hinduism has a similar understanding with the idea of avatar in figures such as Krishna, an incarnation of the supreme deity, Vishnu. Confucianism and Daoism in East Asia have a strong affirmation of this world, for example in the metaphysics and practices of ch’i (qi), or life force. Ch’i is cultivated in the body movements of t’ai chi (taiji) and chigong (qigong), and in the healing practices of traditional Chinese medicine.
Most religious traditions have developed sacramental sensibilities in which material reality mediates the sacred. This is evident in the use of water for baptism and oil for anointing the sick. Moreover, offering food and flowers and lighting incense and candles are widespread sacramental practices in the world religions. Such affirmation of material reality is a critical component of our valuing nature.
Moreover, there is an emerging movement of religious communities who are participating in transformative social change based on principles of environmental justice. For example, the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice published the first statement on environmental justice in 1987, called “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States”. Historically, religions have had ecological dimensions in the ways they ground human communities in the rhythms of nature. This is what we are calling religious ecology. An understanding of the roles of religious ecologies is resurfacing with some intensity in an era when religions were thought to be diminishing with the rise of secularization.
The Force of Religious Environmentalism
The perspectives of the world religions on nature have given rise to new movements of religious environmentalism that are now evident around the world. This illustrates that religions are flexible, able to change from within and spark change from without. Religions are not simply static institutions with fossilized traditions, despite caricatures by antireligionists and others. They have inspired movements for social change, as the Quakers did in the nineteenth century with the abolitionist movement.
In the nineteenth century Catholic social teachings addressed workers’ rights, drawing on Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical, Rerum Novarum (1891). With regard to women’s rights, Katherine Bushnell (1856-1946) and others challenged readings of the Bible that denigrated women. From the 1960’s the Southern Christian Leadership Conference led the movement for civil rights for African Americans. Indigenous peoples have also marshaled their religious symbol systems to oppose colonial rule, such as the Mau-Mau uprising in Kenya and in the Cargo cults of Papua New Guinea. Moreover, the massive demonstrations against dam building have been led by the Kayapo in Brazil and by the Mapuche in Chile. In each case, as the ethical issues became more evident, shifts in attitudes and behavior occurred.
This is the promise as religions enter their ecological phase, bringing to light the moral dimensions of the environmental crisis. In the last dozen years every major religious tradition has developed statements on the environment, eco-justice offices have been organized, and both clergy and lay people are becoming more active. In the Christian community, the World Council of Churches has been working on issues of “peace, justice, and the integrity of creation” for several decades.
Defining Religious Ecology
Religious ecologies are ways of orienting and grounding whereby humans, acknowledging the limitations of phenomenal reality and the suffering inherent in life, undertake specific practices of nurturing and transforming self and community in a particular cosmological context that regards nature as inherently valuable. Through cosmological stories humans narrate and experience the larger matrix of mystery in which life arises, unfolds, and flourishes. These are what we call religious cosmologies. These two, namely religious ecologies and religious cosmologies, can be distinguished but not separated. Together they can provide a context for navigating the tragic and chaotic dimensions of life. They may evoke energies for encountering these inevitable challenges, thus transforming destructive experiences into creative possibilities for new beginnings.
Human communities until the modern period sensed themselves as grounded in and dependent on the natural world, especially the very elements of life. Thus, even when the forces of nature were overwhelming, the regenerative capacity of the natural world opened a way forward. Humans experienced the processes of the natural world as interrelated, both practically and symbolically. These understandings were expressed in traditional environmental knowledge, namely, in hunting and agricultural practices such as the appropriate use of plants, animals, and land. Such knowledge was integrated in symbolic language and practical norms, such as prohibitions, taboos, and limitations on ecosystems’ usage. All this was based in an understanding of nature as the source of nurturance and kinship. Thus the Lakota people still speak of “all my relations” as an expression of this kinship (Mitakuye Oyasin).
Through symbols and rituals, art and architecture, religious ecologies respond to the incompleteness, brokenness, and fragmentation of life and reorient the human toward the fullness of life. In this spirit, religious ecological sensibilities have developed sacred architecture to align living spaces and ceremonial places with the sun and stars and the four directions. Such architecture embodies a religious cosmology and ecology that places a community in relationship to the natural world and the cosmos itself. This symbolic knowing integrates land and structures as well as institutions and practices.
The elements of earth, air, fire, and water are important in religious ecologies as biocultural realities that literally and symbolically weave humans into the vibrant processes of Earth and cosmos. These elements differ symbolically from the elements listed in the periodic table. However, as biocultural symbols, air, earth, water, and fire can be seen as corresponding to religious ecological processes of orienting, grounding, nurturing, and transforming humans. Orienting refers to the inclination of humans to turn toward air, sky, and celestial bodies, namely, that which we stand and in which we dwell. Grounding refers to earth, the soil and land on which we stand and in which we dwell. Nurturing evokes water and food, so essential for life. Transforming connects to fire and the powerful forces that can be creative, destructive, or healing. A human life that comes out of the elements of Earth and ultimately returns to these elements seeks such deep connections through religious symbols and practices.
Religions can no longer be dismissed as irrelevant in environmental discussions, nor can they be seen as ineffective. More than 90 percent of the world’s peoples have an affiliation with a religious community, whether nominally or in practice.
But it is not only for pragmatic or instrumental reasons that religions are important players in environmental issues. There is moral force and spiritual energy at the heart of these traditions, which can contribute to long-term solutions to our complex environmental problems. For millennia religions have fostered worldviews, symbol systems, ethical teachings, and ritual practices in religious ecologies that have the potential to inspire human imagination and evoke human energy for life-enhancing transformation. Such inspiration and evocation are now being harnessed for environmental and social change; moreover, they hold the promise of long-lasting transformation. (Excerpted from Ecology and Religion, Island Press, 2014)