Religions Enter an Ecological Phase
Over the past century, science has begun to weave together the story of a historical cosmos that emerged some 12 billion years ago. The magnitude of this universe story is beginning to dawn on us, as we awaken to a new realization of its vastness and complexity. At the same time, we are becoming conscious of the growing environmental crisis and of the rapid destruction of species and habitat. Just as we become conscious that the Earth took more than four billion years to bring forth this abundance of life, it is dawning on us how quickly we are foreshortening its future.
We need, then, to step back to assimilate what might be called "our cosmological context." As Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme suggest in their book The Universe Story, we are recognizing our participation in this great narrative and our responsibility for enhancing its future flourishing. If science gives us an understanding of the origins and unfolding of the universe, the story of cosmology gives us a sense of our place in the universe. And if we are so radically affecting the Earth by extinguishing other life forms and destroying our own nest, what does this imply about our religious sensibilities or our sense of the sacred? As science is revealing to us the particular intricacy of the web of life, we realize we are unraveling it. As we begin to glimpse how deeply embedded we are in complex ecosystems and dependent on other life forms, we see we are destroying the very basis of our continuity as a species. As the size and scale of the environmental crisis is more widely grasped, we are seeing our own connection to this destruction.
The world’s religions are also being called to contribute to a new understanding of the universe story. The challenge for religions is both to rediscover and reinvent our role as citizens of the universe. This requires addressing such cosmological questions as where we have come from and where we are going.
If humans destroy this awesome matrix of mystery, where will we find sources of inspiration pointing us toward the unfathomable vastness of the sacred? Will religions assume a disengaged pose as species go extinct, forests are exterminated, soil, air and water are polluted beyond restoration, and human health and well being deteriorate? Or will they emerge from their own concerns to see that the survival of life on Earth is also at stake?
The environmental crisis calls the religions of the world to respond by finding their voice within the global community. As they identify their resources for deeper ecological awakening—scriptural, symbolic, ritual and ethical—they will be transforming the deep wellsprings of their traditions.
The transformation activates the human imagination toward a celebration of the awe and wonder of life—its emergence in the primal fireball, its unfolding in the universe story, and its flourishing in Earth’s evolution. We begin to find our niche. We realize we are not only part of humankind but of Earthkind; we are not simply human beings but universe beings.
Principles and Practices
We need to underscore the dark side of religious traditions as well as their lateness in awakening to the environmental crisis. In addition, we should note the ever-present gap between ideal principles and real practices as well as the inevitable disjunction between modern environmental problems and traditional religious resources. For all of these reasons, religions are necessary but not sufficient for solutions to environmental problems. Thus they need to be in dialogue with other religions and other disciplines in focusing on environmental issues.
Religions certainly have their dark side. The human energy poured into religious traditions can be unleashed in both violent and compassionate ways as has been demonstrated throughout history. While the causes of conflict and war are frequently economic, political and environmental, the religious dimensions need to be understood as well. Even before the September 11th terrorist attacks, the near genocide against Native Americans on this continent and against Jews in Europe would be sufficient manifestation of this.
It is important to acknowledge also that religions are only one factor contributing to new patterns of human-Earth relations. Religions can be isolated from critical contemporary issues and estranged from social and ecological change. For example, religions are sometimes antagonistic to science, both in assumptions and methods, although that’s changing in recent years.
With those caveats in mind, religions historically have been forces for positive change, liberating human energy for personal, social and political transformation. It was in this spirit—recognizing both the problems and the promise of religions—that an international conference series, entitled "Religions of the World and Ecology," was held at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard. The series critically explored attitudes toward nature in the world’s religious traditions and highlighted environmental projects around the world inspired by religious values.
From 1996 to1998, a series of 10 conferences examined the traditions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, Shinto and indigenous religions. The conferences, which I organized with John Grim in collaboration with a team of area specialists, brought together 800 international scholars of the world’s religions as well as environmental activists and leaders. Recognizing that religions are key shapers of worldviews and values, this broad project has identified both ideas and practices supporting a sustainable environmental future. The papers from these conferences are being published in a series of 10 volumes from the Center for the Study of World Religions and Harvard University Press, and there is also a new journal entitled World Views: Culture, Religion, Environment.
In the autumn of 1998, three culminating conferences were held at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the United Nations and at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. These events brought representatives of the world’s religions into conversation with one another as well as into dialogue with key scientists, economists, educators and policy makers.
A major result of these conferences was the establishment of an ongoing Forum on Religion and Ecology, which has a primary goal of developing a field of study that has implications for public policy. The Forum has mounted a comprehensive website under the Harvard Center for the Environment. It has sponsored workshops for high school teachers, and has organized various conferences at Harvard and on the West Coast on "World Religions and Animals"; on "Nature Writers and the Ecological Imagination"; and on "Cosmology in Science and Religion."
Religions are moving from a primarily human focus to include concerns for nature and all creation. This movement acknowledges that much work remains to be done in the realm of social, economic and political justice. Yet it is increasingly clear that social and environmental issues can no longer be seen as separate concerns.
Environmental dialogue between and among religious traditions is already taking place. These discussions have emerged in various international arenas such as the Parliame
nt of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1993 and in Capetown in 1999, the Teheran Seminar on Environment, Culture and Religion held in Iran in June, 2001, and the Earth Dialogues on "Globalization: Is Ethics the Missing Link?" held in Lyon, France in February. They’ve been strengthened by strong statements and actions from the Patriarchate of the Greek Orthodox Church.
The world’s religions are now international presences with followers well beyond the country or culture of origin, and they have enormous potential to change attitudes toward the environment. Religions are flourishing around the world—even in China and Russia, where communism intended to stamp out the need for religion—despite the prediction that religions would disappear as secularization spread.
Pluralism thus needs to be highlighted and celebrated, especially as we realize the extraordinary migration patterns that have occurred around the globe in the 20th century. More than at any other time in history, people have left their homelands due to adverse economic, political and environmental conditions. As Harvard’s Pluralism Project has documented, the entire landscape of American religious life has changed radically since the doors were opened by the Immigration Act of 1965. In addition, demographics show that in several years Islam will be the largest religion in the world. Already the majority of Muslims are from outside the Arab world. Likewise, the majority of Christians are located in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Lasting ethical solutions to our global environmental and social problems will need to come from diverse perspectives. Here the world’s religious traditions are a major resource. In addition, important work is being done within and outside of academia in environmental philosophy and in environmental and social ethics, drawing on science, philosophy, literature and other sources. In many of the sometimes-heated discussions of economic development versus environmental protection, the world’s religions can play a vital role.
Rituals and Symbols
As historian of religion Mircea Eliade points out, references from the natural world underlie Christian rituals and symbols; for instance, the Christian liturgical cycle is set entirely within the larger rhythms of nature’s seasons. Christmas is situated at the winter solstice; Easter is celebrated at the spring equinox and the renewal of life. The Eucharist uses bread and wine associated with harvest, thanksgiving, and life-regenerating processes. Baptism uses water to welcome an individual into a community of faith.
A contemporary example of opening traditional forms of ritual and symbol into their ecological phase is the Missa Gaia or Earth Mass with the music of Paul Winter. The Earth Mass has been celebrated for the last two decades in October on the feast of St. Francis of Assisi at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. Many local parishes across the country have been inspired to hold similar rituals. Winter’s most recent project, "The World Tree," celebrates the entire Earth community, its diversity and interdependence.
Other examples of contemporary ecological rituals include Hindu tree planting in South India, Shona and Christian tree planting in Zimbabwe to counteract deforestation after the civil war, the Jewish practice of observing Shabbat to allow time for rest and rejuvenation of individuals and communities and the Jain respect for life so that meat or fish are not eaten.
Dialogue between religion and ecology can revivify rituals and symbols in light of the current environmental crisis. Moreover, it can assist in awakening a renewed appreciation for the intricate cosmological web of life in which we dwell.
A Critical Opportunity
We have the possibility to envision ourselves now not only as political, economic or social beings, but also as planetary beings connected to and dependent on nature. Although urban living and modernity have taken us away from this direct experience, it has not lessened our capacity for appreciation of the natural world, as biologist and author E.O. Wilson suggests. Through science we understand that we are part of a vast evolutionary universe and have some responsibility for the integrity and stability of these life processes.
Can religious traditions awaken a renewed sense of awe and reverence for the Earth as a matrix of mystery? Central to the great transformation of the religions into their ecological phase is the reawakening in the human of a sense of awe and wonder regarding the beauty, complexity and mystery of life itself. Rachel Carson highlighted this many years ago in A Sense of Wonder. Similarly, in his book, The Tangled Wing, anthropologist and neurologist Melvin Konner calls for a recovery of this wonder, which he identifies as "the central feature of the human spirit." If religions are vessels for nurturing the sense of the sacred, surely they will continue to respond to the sacred that is manifest in the wonder of life and in its continuity.
If indigenous traditions could have sustained human-Earth relations for some 150,000 years, their traditional environmental knowledge and sense of awe in the presence of nature will also contribute to the future of the Earth community. If the human mind and spirit has created compelling visions to inspire the flourishing of civilizations for the last 5,000 years, surely that same rich and diverse religious imagination can ignite worldly wonder and activate the commitment needed to sustain life on the planet. These are our collective tasks; these are our particular challenges.
MARY EVELYN TUCKER is a professor of religion at Bucknell University. With her husband, John Grim, she directed the series of 12 conferences on "Religions of the World and Ecology" at Harvard’s Center for the Study of World Religions, and edited the resulting book series from Harvard University Press.